TRUE Professional opens at the Stade de Gerland, in Lyon, France, a venue author James Oddy calls “not the most obvious choice for the Rugby League World Cup final”.
The 1972 final saw Great Britain go head-to-head with perennial rivals Australia, captained by Graeme Langland, while GB were led by Clive ‘Sully’ Sullivan, the very first black Briton to captain a British sports team. The BBC were present, represented by the incomparable Eddie Waring, but only diehard league fans made the journey to central France and for most of the match the players’ shouts were as audible as those of the paltry 4,000 crowd.
Great Britain equalised with seven minutes of normal time remaining, ensuring the duel went into extra time. Incredibly, however, there was no further score and the contest ended 10-10 which meant that GB, thanks to their perfect pre-final record, were crowned world champions.
World Cup victories, especially on foreign soil, are a rarity, yet as Oddy points out, upon their return to Blighty, “The squad was not met with scores of press members clamouring for interviews, or requests for endorsements and sponsorships.”
This, he claims, is because even today rugby league is “only given national attention begrudgingly,” an accurate reflection, though the author later offers several reasons why Sullivan and his men may not have received due credit for their victory.
Sullivan was born in Splott, a respectable working class area of Cardiff, similar in demographic make-up to that of many northern towns and cities where he would eventually make his living, not as though the 13-man version of rugby was readily embraced deep in the heart of 15-man territory.
Oddy weaves an engaging history of rugby league with that of Sullivan’s remarkable sporting career, dovetailing these two strands of his tale with biography and interviews. He is right to suggest that “Sullivan’s career is a microcosm of rugby league.”
Sullivan’s playing record (he represented both Hull teams and scored more than 300 tries) more than justifies this enjoyable mix of biography and social observation. He died, aged just 42, in 1985, a sporting great who never received anywhere near the level of recognition he deserved.
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