Twelve thousand fans packed the Gabba on 17 September 1967 for one of the classic games of Queensland Australian Football. The Western Districts Bulldogs were described by the AFLQ Hall of Fame journalist and Test Cricket umpire Col Hoy as ‘short-priced hot-pots’ to beat the Mayne Tigers in a highly-anticipated grand final.
As the 1967 QAFL Annual Report stated: “The weather was fine and hot and the ground was a mass of colour … very early in proceedings it was quite apparent that there was no place on the playing arena for the faint hearted”.
It was a time when the national code was challenging rugby league for popularity in south-east Queensland, and the 1967 grand final was pivotal. Mike Darby led a Mayne side that included Brian ‘Puddy’ Warlow, Barry Spring and brothers Alan and Jimmy Hayes. David Dalgarno skippered a star-studded Wests side with the likes of John Cheel, Romas Jakavisius, Ray Smith, who later became the first Queenslander to play 100 AFL games, and AFLQ Hall of Fame legend Alan ‘Doc’ Mackenzie. The umpire was Jack Cavanagh.
It was one moment, a very special moment, in more than 60 years’ service to the game in Queensland by a man born in 1924, raised in the St Kilda area of Melbourne, and recruited by the Saints at 17 in 1941. His would-be career in the then VFL was over before it began when he joined the army the following year. Often, he would go AWOL from army training to play local football, and on his way to New Guinea to fight the Japanese, he played at Tolga on the Atherton Tablelands.
After his war service, he settled in Albury and played with the North Albury Grasshoppers. He became the sports officer at the Puckapunyal Army training base for five years before moving to Queensland in the mid-1950s.
He umpired junior football in the early 1960s and graduated to senior ranks at 41 in 1965. In 1967, when the the QAFL was blessed with such quality umpires as AFL Hall of Famer Tom McArthur, John Seul and Bob Kassulke, policy determined that the grand final umpire for the seniors was not told of his appointment until half time of the reserves grand final. Cavanagh arrived at the Gabba expecting to be emergency to the great McArthur, but he got the nod.
The tone was set early for a brutal and testing affair, with an all-in-brawl spilling over into the Gabba crowd. “To say the first quarter was torrid would be a pure understatement,” reported the QAFL Annual Report after Mayne caused a huge boilover 9.22 (76) to Wests 5.12 (42) and independent observers lauded Cavanagh’s performance with the whistle.
In the early 1970s Cavanagh umpired two Gold Coast League grand finals before a year as president of Labrador. Thereafter he was treasurer of the GCAFL for eight years, including two as secretary-treasurer, and was awarded life membership. Heavily involved in the development of junior football on the tourist strip, he was a long-term president of the Labrador juniors. Known as the “gentleman of Gold Coast footy”, the ever-articulate Cavanagh wrote well-scripted articles as TRUE BOOT for the Gold Coast Bulletin. He passed away on 17 May 2018 aged 94.