Roy Francis, the first Black to play rugby in Britain and rise to become the best coach in the sport

Stephen Nartey December 07, 2022
Francis Roy/Photo credit: Wikipedia

He hung up his boots as one of the best coaches of his time. Describe him as having laid the foundation for many modern coaching methods today, and you will not be far from right. Roy Francis was the first Black person to play rugby for Britain in 1947, and subsequently, climbed the ladder to become UK’s first Black coach in 1955 at Hull FC.

Despite the fierce racism he faced in the sport, he was resolute in not allowing the color of his skin to become an impediment to his lifelong dream, as reported by the BBC. He played among the best during his time but that feat was not enough for him as he wanted to change the face of the rugby sport.

Francis did not have a smooth sailing life even as a baby. He was born to a West Indian father and a white mother. His mother had to abandon him because her family was not enthused about a mixed-race child. Francis was later adopted by Rebecca Francis, a woman of African descent.

He ventured into the army when the Second World War placed a temporary hold on the rugby league. His passion for the game made him practice and play wherever he found himself. He joined the rugby team in the army, played for Dewsbury, and made 57 showings as a guest for the Yorkshire side. He had his breakthrough when he went to play Barrow during the warring period. The Britain team invited him to join their side.

Francis had his first brush with racism when he was dropped by the British rugby team during its game with Australia. He was sidelined at a time when he was one of the high-performing rugby players. He had his qualms because he had laid down his life in the war for Britain’s victory. But, the team officials feared adding Francis to the team will stoke controversy.

Australia at the time was practicing racial segregation and color bar, which disadvantaged Britain’s team in the game. Francis was the team’s best winger. When he retired after playing for other teams in Britain, Francis set his eyes on the coaching job, becoming the first Black head coach in any sport, leading Hull.

What made him exemplary in his coaching career boiled down largely to his methods and tactics. He dwelled on psychology and relationship-building antics like providing free transport to the families of players to all their games. These methods are part of the reasons for his sterling accomplishments at the East Yorkshire club. He won the Championship titles with the East Yorkshire club in 1956 and 1958. He also provided coaching for them to compete in two Challenge club finals in 1959 and 1960.

Despite racial tensions, his deeds won him love from fans and residents of Hull. He introduced a diet plan and player development in his team, culminating in the giant strides he made in the city. One of his psychological tactics was to invite his injured star players to his home for either drinks or a meal and have heart conversations with them. This approach has become one of the adopted strategies of many modern coaches.

Francis had massive community backing and love. This was exhibited when in 1957 Hull signed Mervyn McMillan, a South African full-back. McMillan was not happy that his coach was Black, suggesting that Francis would not have an opportunity to coach in his (McMillan’s) own country.

McMillan was sacked with immediate effect without making any appearance for Hull on the pitch. Francis brought his coaching to a halt at Hull in 1963 to coach the Leeds team. He brought transformation in the style of play at the West Yorkshire club. Francis led Leeds to win one of the most famous Challenge Cup finals in history in 1968.

The tough nature of the game earned it the name Watersplash Final, where Leeds won the Challenge trophy with an 11-10 victory over its opponent. Leeds won the day in history but Francis etched his name as the best coach of his time.

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