Oct 13 2021

Black History Month: Clive Sullivan - Britain's First Black Rugby Captain

The scenes that met the 1972 Rugby League World Champions upon their return to Great Britain can be described as muted at best. 

When you consider the hero’s welcome that meets returning teams today – the throng of individuals cheering at the airport, the autograph hunters, and banner-waving selfie-takers – it seems inconceivable that when the Great British team returned from France, bringing with them the winner’s trophy no less, that they were met with zero fuss. But they were.

In fact, despite the scale of the achievement of the team (no teams other than Australia or New Zealand have won the competition since 1972), so understated was the response and so largely ignored by the public was their success that the team’s captain, Clive Sullivan, returned straightaway to work in an aircraft factory in the north of England. 

And yet, despite slipping back into normal life with relative ease, Clive’s achievements in leading the side mark him out as a pioneer in the history of British Sport. 

That’s because Clive Sullivan was the first black captain of a British sports team. 

Born in April 1943 in Cardiff, Clive was a prolific try-scorer from the wing for both Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers. An incredibly popular and well-liked person, he was appointed captain ahead of the 1973 Rugby League World Cup, an achievement that was all the more remarkable given it would be six years before the England Football team would even pick their first Black player for their senior team. 

When you think of the many Black British Athletes who have represented and led their countries since then it should be impossible to overlook the work that Clive did in breaking down barriers. However, due to the state of ‘professional’ sports financing he still had to work multiple jobs alongside playing. 

Clive tragically passed away in 1985, having been diagnosed with liver cancer at just 42 years old. 

For his services to Rugby, Clive was appointed an MBE, and has a road named after him in Hull, however, despite his achievements (individual and with his teams) his contribution to British Sport should have made him a household name to this day.