From being released as a youngster to carving out his Super League dream: The inspirational story of Deon Cross

Drew Darbyshire
Deon Cross Salford Red Devils Alamy

Deon Cross in action for Salford Red Devils

It’s probably fair to say Deon Cross has had to work harder than most to get to where he is now, fulfilling a lifelong ambition of being a full-time professional rugby league player.

The 26-year-old is currently living the Super League dream with Salford Red Devils and is a proud England Knights international, but it hasn’t always been this way for Cross.

The St Helens-born outside-back has earned his full-time opportunity through sheer hard work, determination and never giving up on his dream of being a professional rugby league player.

Cross played his junior rugby at St Helens-based Blackbrook Royals and joined the scholarship at Super League giants St Helens when he was 15.

He played in the scholarship for around two years but he wasn’t then offered an academy contract.

Cross then decided to go back playing for Blackbrook, progressing through the age groups to open age in the amateur scene.

In an exclusive interview with Love Rugby League, Cross said: “At round about Under-15s, I got offered a scholarship at St Helens.

“I played two years there and then when it came to the crucial period when you get offered a contract to play on for the academy or you don’t, I was unfortunate not to get one – just down to not being good enough really.

“A lot of people get disheartened and pretty much stop playing but I just thought its what I want to do as a career and go and play rugby league full-time and play Super League.

“I just went back down to my amateur club Blackbrook and played Under-18s and then went on to Open Age and had a couple of years down there.”

Deon Cross on going from amateur to semi-pro: ‘Next minute I was playing against Bryson Goodwin!’

Bryson Goodwin Warrington Wolves 2018 Alamy Bryson Goodwin playing for Warrington in 2018

Cross got his chance to turn semi-professional in 2018 with then Championship side Rochdale Hornets.

Explaining how his semi-pro move came around, he said: “Ant Walker who was the coach at the time, he was doing a little bit of work with Rochdale Hornets and they were going through a bit of financial trouble so they lost quite a lot of players to other clubs.

“He just rang me one night and said ‘we’ve got a game at the weekend, a pre-season friendly against Warrington Wolves, do you want to play in that? There might be a chance for you’.

“This was on a Thursday night and I was like ‘yeah yeah, I’ll play’. Next minute, I’m up against Bryson Goodwin who has just signed from South Sydney Rabbitohs!

“I was just used to playing against 30-odd year old fellas on a Saturday afternoon (for Blackbrook). It was pretty funny really, I went alright in that game and I got offered a contract after that game.”

Cross impressed for the Hornets, making 29 appearances in 2018 before making the move to Barrow Raiders.

Playing under mastercoach Tim Sheens at Widnes Vikings: ‘How good is this?!’

Tim Sheens Australia World Cup Alamy Tim Sheens lifts the 2013 World Cup as coach of his country Australia

Deon Cross scored 14 tries in 34 appearances for Cumbrian side Barrow in 2019 before moving closer to home with Widnes ahead of the 2020 season.

The threequarter played six games under World Cup-winning coach Tim Sheens at Widnes in 2020 before the season was cut short due to the pandemic.

On his move to Widnes, Cross said: “I remember getting a phone call off (then coach) Kieron Purtill one night. He was saying ‘we’re really interested in signing you, would you be willing to come down?’ and I was like ‘it’s on my doorstep, at such a big club like Widnes, they are rich in history’ so I thought ‘yeah, I’d like to play for Widnes’.

“I went down there and Kieron Purtill left and it was up in the air who was going to be the new coach and all of a sudden on social media they announce Tim Sheens, who won a World Cup with Australia and the background he’s got…

“I was like ‘how good is this?!’ – even on a Tuesday and Thursday night, still scratching your head, you are being coached by an Australian international coach.

“All the players he’s coached like Johnathan Thurston and Darren Lockyer, the best players in the world and he’s now down here coaching me, I was thinking ‘how good is this?’

“He was good and the style of rugby Widnes played when he came in was good.

“I was playing on the wing at the time and that has probably helped get me to where I am now, just the style of rugby they were playing probably exposed me a bit more and me getting a lot more ball and scoring some tries on the back of some nice attack.

“The standard of players at Widnes, a lot of them had played Super League, they sort of brought me up to their level. It put me in good stead for when I went into that full-time environment.”

Achieving his childhood dream of playing in Super League as a full-time professional

Deon Cross Salford Red Devils 2022 Alamy Deon Cross in action for Salford Red Devils in 2022

After scoring 24 tries in 31 appearances for Widnes, Cross got his chance at being a full-time professional in Super League with Salford Red Devils in 2022 – something he had always dreamed of.

It was his first time being a full-time athlete and at the age of 25, Cross grabbed the opportunity with both hands and has never looked back.

He said: “There was some tough love from the coaches in the first six weeks of pre-season and obviously it is a big step up from Championship to Super League and I sort of had to get up to that standard and try to earn his (Paul Rowley) respect.

“I’ve loved every minute of it and we’ve got a great bunch of lads at Salford, the likes of Ken Sio really took me under his wing, nurtured me, looked after me and helped me one to one with little bits.

“We were both wingers at the time and I think Dan Sarginson ended up with Covid and I ended up having to fill in at centre and since then I’ve never really looked back.

“I remember we had two pre-season friendlies and I think we played Warrington in Lee Mossop’s testimonial. Rowls said ‘I’m going to rest you this week because there’s a chance you’ll play against Castleford in round one’ so I was like ‘bloody hell!’ – I was only expecting an opportunity to come up later in the season if there were injuries and illness and all that type of stuff.

“I thought if I did get my opportunity later on in the season then brilliant, but if not, I’d have had a good experience at doing what I wanted to do full-time.

“He then spoke to me saying ‘I’m going to put you on the bench, you’ve worked really hard in pre-season, you might play, you might not play, but you’ll be in the 17’.

“Dan Sarginson actually pulled out in the captain’s run the day before so Rowls came up to me and said ‘you are going to have to start tomorrow, Dan Sarginson has pulled out with a hamstring injury’. It’s funny how things happen in life.

“Round One against Castleford last season, I’d never played centre before really and I was playing centre in Super League. You can imagine the nerves! But it was a really good night and I’ll remember that moment forever.”

Winning international honours with England Knights

Cross enjoyed a stellar debut season in Super League last year, scoring 13 tries in 29 games for Salford, earning an international call-up to the England Knights squad.

Cross made his debut for the Knights in 28-4 win over Scotland in Edinburgh last autumn in what was a World Cup warm-up match for the Bravehearts.

Recalling his call-up, Cross said: “Rowls were pretty quiet about it! I only found out after we’d just beaten Huddersfield in the quarter-finals (play-offs).

“Emotions were high and we were 80 minutes away from playing at Old Trafford so everyone was buzzing and I was buzzing.

“I remember Rowls sat us all in the changing room, did his post-match debrief and then he said ‘I had a call from Paul Anderson last night and Deon has been called into the Knights’ and it was a lot to take in, but all the boys were buzzing for me and I was buzzing.

“It was something I had in the back of my mind but I never thought I’d get that chance. I thought it was too late in the season so it came out of the blue and it was an amazing experience, so hopefully I get that chance again this season.

“Just playing with different players as well and seeing how they work on the training field and how they prepare… It was a brilliant experience.”


Deon Cross sends message to younger players: Don’t give up, contracts aren’t the be all and end all

Deon Cross said his rugby league journey makes him appreciate the job and privilege he’s got now more than ever.

He’s worked his way up the leagues after being released in his teenage years. He’s played Open Age at amateur level, worked tirelessly on and off the field in the Championship and is now reaping the rewards of being a full-time professional in Super League.

Wrapping up the interview, Cross said: “If that helps another 16-year-old lad whose not been given an academy contract, just know there’s always something there.

“The likes of me, Matty Ashton, Joe Bullock, Chris Hankinson, Andy Ackers (have been there).

“It’s not the be all and end all. You’re not always going to have that perfect journey to get to where you want to be and there are some hardships along the way but it will be worth it.

“I was doing some coaching last night at Kurt Haggerty’s rugby coaching business and he’s got a lot of lads who are at that crucial period. Some might sign and some might get let go.

“I’m probably more appreciative of the route I’ve taken to get there because if you don’t get offered that contract at 16, then going back to my local amateur club.

“I’m a lot more experienced like getting to play for the English Lions Under-18s. We played Scotland and Wales, so it’s not just about getting a contract (at that age), it’s not the be all and end all.

“There’s so many more opportunities, like the BARLA, they do a South Africa tour and Australia tour and it’s not just about playing professional. There are so many opportunities out there.”

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