In an age when protests and demonstrations around the world are still considered necessary to demand respect to sections of our fellow men, and put an end to discrimination against people of colour, it is heartening to know that 70 years ago, we in Hull welcomed a black rugby league player who went on to command the respect that he had earned throughout most of his career and during his time here.
Here, Hull FC historian Bill Dalton pays tribute to Roy Francis.
Roy Francis was a rugby league legend, having played the sport at the top level for 18 years. He hailed from the Tiger Bay area in Cardiff, and made his name with the Brynmawr RU club before being enticed north in 1937 to sign for Wigan on 14th November 1936. He made a promising start with 7 tries in the 5 games that he played at the end of the 1936-37 season, including two hat-tricks.
At that time, Wigan had legend Alf Ellaby and Jack Morley on their wings, so they were content to let Roy learn the Rugby League trade in their ‘A’ team.
Despite the talents he had displayed with Wigan, he was transferred to Barrow on 12th January 1939, where he forged the beginnings of an outstanding career, playing 26 games in the centres (13 tries) before the onset of World War II compelled Roy, a qualified masseur by now, to join the Army, attached to the Physical Training Corps, and for Barrow to cease operations for 3 years.
However, under the wartime rugby league operations where clubs could employ guest players where appropriate, given their location as regards military duties, Roy turned out on some 57 occasions during the period 1940-41 to 1943-44 for Dewsbury under the management of the ubiquitous Eddie Waring. Roy played in the teams which won the Championship for Dewsbury in 1941-42 and 1942-43.
Barrow resumed in 1943-44 and Roy returned to their ranks as well as being called upon by the Service Rugby Union teams and by England and Wales for wartime international matches. It seemed that wartime removed the barriers between union and league and also could make a Welshman an Englishman!
There was little doubt that his brilliance at every facet of three-quarter play had earned him selection for the 1946 GB Lions Tour to Australasia. Astonishingly, Roy was not selected and the blame for his omission was laid squarely at the door of the colour bar operated down under at that time.
However, he won a Great Britain Test cap against the Kiwis in 1947, scoring twice in his one appearance at Odsal Stadium, Bradford, which was the first selection of a black player in any British international sporting team. He was transferred to Warrington for the 1948-49 Season for the not inconsiderable sum of £800, and collected a Championship runners-up medal to add to his pair of winners awards at Dewsbury.
The autumn of 1949 saw Roy move to Hull, where he played under Joe Oliver for a season before taking on the player-coach role.
He quickly established himself as a disciplinarian, but also as a coach who was ‘20 years ahead of his time’ He introduced innovations such as cine film of matches to aid players in training ‘de-briefs’.
He was observed in the dug-out at the Boulevard with his clip-board, where previously, not much more than a towel, bucket and sponge had ever accompanied the support staff. He instituted training in a gym, a factor which brought derision from other coaches in the sport.
There were more fundamental aids, however. When Roy saw that the Hull team needed to widen play out, he would sit with a towel spread wide across his knees. To keep play tight, he would close his legs.
But the value of his innovations were quickly felt at Hull as forwards ran like three-quarters and the backs tackled like forwards!
A team which had been little more than ordinary since the war, reached the top-four play-offs in 1952, three successive Yorkshire Cup finals 1953-55, and, against all odds, the Rugby League Championship in 1956, following that up with a repeat in 1958 sandwiched around the runners-up spot in 1957.
The club’s first qualification for Wembley followed in 1959 and 1960, albeit unsuccessful on the day for differing reasons, firstly, Wigan were good and secondly, even Roy Francis couldn’t patch up the wounded for the Wakefield encounter.
His success at Hull, for whom he played 137 matches and scored 60 Tries, and the esteem with which he was held throughout the game, brought overtures to join Leeds in 1963 and, again, he brought success as the Challenge Cup was won in the ‘Watersplash’ Final of 1968, as well as the Yorkshire Cup later in the same year. Star names in the Leeds team such as Alan Smith and John Atkinson held the same admiration for Roy as he had earned at the Boulevard.
After a period of 50 years domination by Australia, it is strange now to acknowledge that they felt, at that time, they needed the influence of British coaches and the North Sydney Bears offered Roy the job in the summer of 1968. North Sydney were bottom of the ARL at the time, but Roy managed to coax three victories from their final half dozen matches and avoid the wooden spoon, and thence halfway up the League in 1969. In fact, the long-term upturn in Australia’s fortunes can be tracked back to Roy’s coaching doctrine of intense physical effort allied to good man management.
One sphere of the Australian game, however, far more intense but intrusive to a point, is the constant media spotlight on the game right through the eastern side of the nation. Subsequently, a core of North Sydney players – led by an Australian Test player of the day – became resentful of Roy’s methods and so they became supported by sections of the Sydney Media.
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Eventually, by March 1971, the pressure became too much and Roy returned home and North Sydney’s English experiment was over.
Roy came back briefly to the Boulevard (1971-73) and on to Leeds (again), where he masterminded the winning of the Premiership in 1974-75. He then served Bradford Northern for a couple of years 1975-77 to assist in reviving their fortunes.
Roy died on 5th April 1989 at the age of 70. Without doubt, he was one of the game’s great men.