Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league

Roy was the first to come to me after I had a daughter, Anne Francis says. He snuck into the hospital about an hour after he was born. I think he wanted to see what color it was. It was rather moving, I thought.

I’m sure he didn’t say that, but I know why he came. I saw him looking at her in the crib and he went home to tell Rene’s wife that he was relieved that she was white. He didn’t want his granddaughter not to like anything, and he loved her.

The story Anna remembers of her Roy Francis test is far removed from her public reputation and great sporting successes, but it paints a poignant picture of the spirit of a loving, private man who has achieved a great deal in public.

Francis was a brilliant Rugby League player, and became the first black player to play for Great Britain in 1947 and one of the country’s greatest coaches. In 1955 FC Hull became the first black coach of the British professional top team.

But why did he want his granddaughter to be white?

As a coach, he became a leader with power over the whites in Britain at a time when this was unthinkable in any other sector of society. In the 1950s, many blacks could not find work because of coloured rods. It would take another 23 years for Weaver Anderson to become the first black footballer in England, and another 32 years for Bernie Grant to become the first black MP in the UK.

The story of Francis is largely forgotten. He died in 1989 at the age of 70. He is not part of the wider sports consciousness of Great Britain, nor is he on the list of the 100 Great Black Britons. Yet he was a great innovator who revolutionized sport in the country.

Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league

Raised in South Wales in the 1920s and 1930s, Francis fell in love with the Rugby Union.

But the Welsh followed the English Rugby Football Union in 1895 and broke with the rugby league. The working class in the north of England tried to get paid for their efforts on the field, while the Union men tried to get a rugby lover for the men.

As a worker who had to make money, Francis had only one solution. A defeat for the Rugby Union of Wales would be a victory for the English Rugby League.

He was born in Brynmaur in 1919. His biological mother, a married white woman, was having an affair with a West Indian man. Her family wasn’t impressed by the birth of baby Roy and she abandoned him. He’s not sure if he ever knew who his biological parents were.

A black woman, Rebecca Francis, took Roy in and raised him. School reports show that he was a bright and well-rounded student who excelled in many sports.

He first played for Brynmawr in the Rugby Alliance and then became one of the first players in the Black Rugby League when he changed the code and moved north to Wigan in 1936 at the age of 17.

Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league Francis (second from the left), represented in Wigan Central Park in 1938.

The teenager had immediate success, made his first five appearances in the sport at the end of the season and scored seven attempts.

The partisans blamed them. Francis learned quickly, but his success was reversed when Harry Sunderland of Australia took over as coach and played him in just seven of his 86 games.

The young winger was told that he would not succeed in the club and was – including Francis himself – offered to take care of him because of the color of his skin.

Barrow saw an opportunity to sign it. Francis became a member of the Cumbria Club in January 1939 and started to try it at an amazing pace before the Second World War.

During the war he joined the British Army and served as a physical education teacher in the north of England, alongside the future leader of the city of Manchester, Joe Mercer, and many other athletes of the time.

This time the army didn’t stop Francis from playing sports. In 1942 he became the fastest sprinter in the army and was invited 57 times to Deusbury, where he won two championship medals.

Francis became sergeant and was summoned by the Army Rugby Union teams to represent England and Wales. He also absorbed compulsive knowledge that would quickly become decisive.

Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league Championship Cup with Hull in 1956 Francis’ first big coaching success came in 1956 – when he led Hull to the championship title.

The post-war Francis returned to Barrow and his fertile form forced him to travel to Britain hoping to travel Australia. Unfortunately, he fell on another glass ceiling.

In writing Francis’ obituary in 1989, author Robert Gate reflected: Roy’s skin stole his place on the Lvov tour in 1946. The game clearly doesn’t have the four best sides, and yet it was left out for political reasons, Australia still managed to score the coloured strip.

A year later, on the 20th. In December 1947, he was the first black player for Great Britain in the third test against New Zealand in Bradford.

The United Kingdom won 25-9. Francis won two attempts. He was never re-elected.

Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league

In his book Gone to the North: Rugby League Welshmen, Gate marks Francis’ observation of a game in Deusbury: He is a man who is able to make a decisive effort in a critical phase and he also has the talent to maintain the fighting spirit of his entire team. It is a person who can quickly release the tension of the critical moment by opting for an observation or a small action.

This analysis proved to be an early and accurate indication of the great future influence of Francis. His brainpower will change everything.

In 1950 Francis came to Hull via Warrington and signed a contract worth £1,250 (a world record of £4,750 in the same year). He continued to play on the field and then became a coach, hanging his boots with an amazing record – 229 attempts in 356 games.

Five years after his arrival, he became the team’s head coach.

Francis was a revelation. He gave the city a golden age with championships in 1956 and 1958 – in the meantime he came second – and took it to the Challenge Cup finals in 1959 and 1960.

Everyone in the club loved him, the people in Hull loved him. Francis’s intelligence and pleasant nature have together created a bubble that has put racial tensions in other parts of Britain to a low level.

But Francis usually doesn’t remember the prices and the silverware, but how he looked for them.

At that time, coaches in British sport were often just teambuilders. In a few decades you will see an overview of the English Rugby Union by Clive Woodward or Sir Dave Brailsford’s small claims in British cycling. Not for Francis.

In fact, he was the first person in British sport to use modern training methods, says sports historian Tony Collins.

Professional coaches have developed player skills, sprint coaches, individual training plans and player diets. He takes care of the psychological well-being and always ensures that women and children are admitted.

Francis had two sons, Jeff and Ian, who saw what his father’s holistic approach at home meant.

Our house has always been full of injured players, Jeff says. Guys with concussions or whatever, come and stay with us for a few days. Players came and went as plans.

Roy was like a tortured aunt to the players. If they had problems at home or anything, he’d sit with them for hours.

Francis and his wife Irene, a cosy and cuddly woman called René, also had three successful pubs and a café during their stay in Halle. They created their own community.

Those who didn’t like it didn’t last long. In 1957, Hull signed a contract with a South African defender named Mervyn Pin McMillan, who didn’t know his coach was black.

Francis went to pick up his new player at the station and the contempt for the South Africans was immediately clear. McMillan said Francis would carry his bags in his homeland, not in practice. He wasn’t on the first team in Hull.

Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league Francis (right on the picture), also won the Challenge Cup in Leeds in 1968.

The leap forward in the study of physical education and psychology in the army helped Francis in the revolution in Hull. He did the same in Leeds and became their head coach in 1963.

What a transformation, his training methods have been a revelation, says Alan Smith, a wing of Leeds, England and England, who retired in 1983.

Right now everyone should have studs, the big vanguard that wears sprint studs. He improved his physical condition, changed the game and took rugby to the next level – the best rugby in the Super League. He was a great man. He was like a cake.

Today’s coaches often draw inspiration from other sports – but Francis was ahead of his time in this respect.

He was obsessed with sports. His son Jeff remembers holding a coaching licence from the British Boxing Control Council for three years and instructing his boxers to hold 5-pound weights in their hands during training.

Pain was a recurring theme in the formation of Francis. The boys were regularly physically ill, Smith says of the early sessions in Leeds. We’ve never seen anything like it.

He pushed, he pushed, and he always had a stopwatch, I’m not sure if he ever took the time, I think maybe it was a trick.

He loved us and we loved him. Every player present – if Roy had told us to run all night, we’d have done it. I’ve never been better trained for anyone.

Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league One year after the end of the Challenge Cup Francis leaves for Australia for a new track, on the picture taken here with his wife Renee before the start.

Francis Leeds played a great rugby, the forward passes the ball far and hard back. To prove it there was a trophy in 1968, when they defeated Wakefield in heavy rain and won the Challenge Cup, the so-called Watersplash final.

Unfortunately for Leeds, their coach’s reputation grew even more and his story would have crossed with that of Australia when the North Sydney Bears coached him in the 1969 season.

Some say the club hierarchy didn’t understand that Francis was black when they hired him. It’s not clear, but the world didn’t share the opinion of the British Rugby League at the time that skin colour doesn’t matter if you can get the job done.

On a long journey to the other side of the world, Francis and his wife Renee were not allowed to travel to South Africa by boat. They came to Australia, where Aborigines could vote or count in the census only two years ago.

Like many men of his generation, Francis was not inclined to discuss his feelings with his family, but Renee spoke to her daughter-in-law Anna.

Renee had to endure a lot of abuse from people in Australia, they were very cruel, Anne says. She and Roy kept quiet about it, but I think they were very offended by the insults some of the team members got.

It’s funny, but one of the comments in the Australian media referred to Francis as an activist who behaved like Malcolm X, and then, in a live radio interview, the British coach, tired of such comments, suddenly removed his earplugs and left the studio.

After two years Francis had had enough. He and Renee came home.

Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league

After Sydney, Francis returned to Hull for three years, starting in 1970, and then to Leeds in 1974, where he won the title of Prime Minister before ending his coaching career at Bradford North and Huddersfield. He retired in 1977 at the age of 58.

It is only recently that Francis’ impressive legacy has been recognised. In 2018 he was admitted to the Wales Sports Hall of Fame and a statue was erected in Cardiff.

If we look at Francis’ protégé, his influence is very broad.

Johnny Whitely was Captain Hull under a progressive carriage. He took the reins and then led the British tour to Australia in 1970 – his last victory in the ashes there. Colin Hutton adopted the methods of Francis and became a great rugby player who also coached Great Britain in the sixties.

But even 65 years after Francis’ brilliant debut in Hull, British sport still suffers from a serious shortage of black head coaches or administrative staff, as footballer Rahim Sterling said in June.

Francis had innumerable qualities: inner strength, thick skin, a unique and innovative sporting spirit and a loving nature.

Last month, Bradford Bull’s head coach, John Keir Francis, proclaimed him the godfather of a modern coach, but for Roy Jeff’s son, he was just a father.

I haven’t met anyone like him since, he says. I know he’s my father, and the blood is thicker than water. I don’t really know how to say this. I can’t imagine anyone else I’ve met in my life thinks this man is anything else.

I’m very proud of him.

You can view the Rugby Code Breakers on iPlayer documentation here.

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