The life and times of Mick Sullivan

Mick Sullivan

Mick Sullivan (right) starred for club and country (Picture: The RFL)

IT WAS perhaps appropriate that Mick Sullivan was named as one of the players to be enshrined in rugby league’s Hall of Fame in the same year as fellow Great Britain record cap holder Garry Schofield.
Unlike, say, American football or baseball, whose Halls are huge shrines to their sports in Canton and Cooperstown respectively, rugby league’s pantheon of – at present – 25 all-time greats currently has no permanent home.
Instead, they are enshrined in a corner of the internet on The RFL’s website under the ‘History and Heritage’ section, with brief biographies accompanying each member’s entry.
Perhaps this is a metaphor for how rugby league views itself as a sport, or maybe it is more akin to the quiet dignity the folk heroes of a staunchly and proudly working class game – such as Sullivan, who died earlier this week aged 82 – carry themselves with.
Although playing in different eras, Sullivan and Schofield both racked up 46 caps for the national team – an achievement which is unlikely to be matched ever again, particularly with the Lions having been split into the constituent nations in 2008.
Sullivan actually managed to reach the milestone in nine years, compared to 11 for Schofield, although that is not the only similarity between the two.
Both proved prolific try-scorers on the international stage, but it was winger Sullivan who truly led the way in the latter by setting another Great Britain record of crossing the line 41 times in the white, blue and red shirt.
The Pudsey-born Sullivan showed his sporting talents from an early age, excelling in sprinting, swimming and water polo. But it was on the rugby field where he would make his name after signing for Huddersfield from amateur side Shaw Cross in 1952.
His bow for Great Britain came two years later against Australia in the inaugural World Cup, and he helped the side captained by Dave Valentine go on to ultimately lift the trophy.
Sullivan would play his part in helping Great Britain triumph in the 1960 tournament as well, scoring a try in a bruising 10-3 victory over Australia at Odsal in the deciding match of the competition, becoming the only player from these shores to date to win the World Cup twice.
He remained a mainstay of the Lions side until 1963 and helped them to four Ashes series triumphs, including playing and scoring in the storied second Test victory in Brisbane in 1958 where Alan Prescott played for 77 minutes with a broken arm.
And when the British players were pelted with missiles by the Australian fans in the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Sullivan is said to have faced up to it by picking up an orange which had been thrown from the crowd and eating it.
At club level, Sullivan twice commanded what, at the time, was a world record transfer fee – first when signing for Wigan from Huddersfield in 1957 for £9,500 and then again when he joined St Helens for £11,000 four years later.
His feat of scoring a total of 342 club tries in his career – which later took in spells with Dewsbury and York is even more impressive given he played in the era of unlimited tackles, where goal-kicking was much more prevalent than in the modern game.
It was a time when the game was arguably a lot more brutal too, although Sullivan was regarded as much as a tenacious defender during his career as for his attacking skill – traits which no doubt served him well in his post-playing occupation as a warder at Wakefield Prison.
Indeed, he was subject of a sine die ban from The RFL on two occasions and Tony Collins’ book Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain recounts how Sullivan’s serialised life story in the Sunday People newspaper featured “lurid descriptions of stiff-arm tackling taking centre stage.”
Nevertheless, such trivialities should not detract from a stellar career and of all the tributes paid to him, perhaps the most heartfelt came from current Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan
“I remember Mick Sullivan signing for Wigan,” recalled Lenagan. “I was at school in St Helens, I remember being at Shaw Street Station when I heard the news he had signed, and I was delighted.
“He was a terrific player – tough, uncompromising. I don’t know why Wigan ever let him go.
“It’s a great shame to hear he’s passed away.”
Perhaps the final word, though, should go to fellow Great Britain cap record holder Schofield, who posted a succinct tribute to the great man on his Twitter account.

 

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