Codebreakers Statue unveiled in Cardiff Bay

By Ian Golden

Wednesday 21st July, yesterday as I write this, will go down in history as one of the most important dates in Wales Rugby League history.

It’s when a statue of Billy BostonClive Sullivan, and Gus Risman was unveiled in Cardiff Bay in front of hundreds of people, including their families (the numbers of which nearly reached three figures on their own), former team-mates, international stars of rugby league, rugby union, football, athletics and others, as well as many more very interested onlookers, keen to witness a special moment in history.

Before yesterday, only four other rugby players, Gareth Edwards (who actually attended yesterday), Ken Jones, Phil Bennett and Ray Gravell have been immortalised in Wales. This statue is also the first in Wales ever to feature non-fictionalised, named black men.

But let’s look into this further. Boston, Sullivan and Risman, who were born and raised in the city of Cardiff, two from the old Tiger Bay, are among the best rugby league players in the world ever. They all deserve their place in the history books as legends and have long been recognised as such in the north of England.

Boston is the second highest try scorer in the world ever – just read that again – second highest ever that’s known of in either code of rugby. With 571 to his name in rugby league (he’d have scored a few in union too), he’s second on the list to Australian Brian Bevan (he scored 796 which included 740 for Warrington). When I introduced him to then Celtic Crusaders head coach John Dixon in Blackpool in 2006, it’s the only time I ever saw the Australian starstruck, that’s how much of an international legend he is.

Sullivan was the last player to captain Great Britain to win a Rugby League World Cup. He was the first black player to captain any British international rugby side and only the second to captain any British international side in any sport. He also became one of the rare players to play for both Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers, leading them both to Challenge Cup Final wins, and his 406 tries is the third best of any Welsh player in rugby league history.

And Risman won the Challenge Cup with three different sides. Between 1929 and 1954 he scored 4,052 points in 873 games – 2,007 of them for Salford and 1,531 for Workington Town – making him the fourth highest British professional rugby league points scorer of all time.

You can read more about them on their links above.

However, there is more to it than just their successes on the field.

For those who are unaware, and as we are now over a generation away from the change – rugby union was officially an amateur sport until 1995. If anyone played or coached rugby league, played a trial match, spoke to a rugby league official about signing or even helped to run a lottery at a rugby league club, they were banned from rugby union for life.

Cardiff RFC were among the strictest of sides enforcing this, banning Jonathan Davies from their ground when he wanted to pay them a visit during his time in rugby league. Therefore, it’s quite amazing that it was Cardiff Council that have been the main organisers of the Rugby Codebreakers project that’s seen this statue erected in Cardiff Bay.

For hundreds of players, like Boston, Sullivan and Risman, the only way they could earn a crust for playing rugby was to switch to rugby league and “go north” as it used to be known. However, for two of these three, as there was with many other players in South Wales at the time, there was an added hurdle – they weren’t white!

To many people reading this, it may seem incredulous, but the facts are there. No black player was selected for Wales in rugby union until Mark Brown was in 1983 (the second player to be selected, Glen Webbe, was a guest at yesterday’s proceedings). Billy Boston once told me that the main thing that stopped him being selected for Cardiff RFC was the colour of his skin. Boston instead played for CIACS (Cardiff Internationals RFC) in Cardiff, as well as making appearances for Neath and Pontypridd before eventually signing for Wigan in November 1953. Neither Boston or Sullivan had any issues in being selected in international rugby league. The first black player to turn out for Wales RL was George Bennett in 1935.

When I was growing up (I was born in 1971), rugby league were two words you didn’t hear together in Wales that much without it being said through gritted teeth. When I asked my sports teacher in school what the difference was, he asked me “Which one do we play?”. I answered “rugby union” and he said: “That’s all you need to know”.

Few players who went north in the century that encompasses 1895, when the sport of rugby split in two, and 1995 when rugby union went openly professional, ever moved back to Wales.

Out of the three players immortalised on the statue, only Boston is alive today. Now aged 88 and suffering from dementia, he was accompanied by his good friend Jim Mills who read a statement on Boston’s behalf. Mills and Boston still live in the north of England, as does Mike Nicholas, who was another guest of honour yesterday. However, both have been actively involved in Wales Rugby League over the last 20 years, Nicholas as WRL president since 2003 whilst Mills regularly organises get-togethers with other past players.

“Coming home to Cardiff has always been a pleasure and this is one of the highlights of my life,” Mills read on behalf of Boston. “To be up there alongside such magnificent men as Gus Risman and Clive Sullivan is simply amazing. I feel honoured to be singled out for this remarkable tribute by the people of Cardiff.

“Cardiff and Wales have always held a very special place in my heart, Wigan adopted me and became my home from home. The people of that town became my second family and have been wonderful to me for almost 70 years.”

It’s the third statue to immortalise Boston, there’s one in Wigan and one at Wembley Stadium, and all critics have rightly said that one of him in Cardiff has been too long in coming.

That’s why, that in 2019, meetings were set in motion to rectify this and the project behind the statue – One Team. One Race: Honouring the Cardiff Bay Rugby Codebreakers – was established in 2020.

Ten Cardiffians were then selected in short-list by a panel of experts and it went to a public vote to decide the three, with the results announced in December 2020.

It’s taken until now for the funding to be raised and indeed the statue to be sculptured, which it was brilliantly by Yorkshire sculptor Steve Winterburn, who also did the other statues in Wigan and Wembley. It was his “third Billy” and “second Gus” with Risman also on the Wembley monument.

Mother nature looked after us too. There’s been a lot of rain recently but the day down the Bay was nice and sunny with a touch of wind. It all started with a choir, made up of local schools from the area (Boston had his photo taken with them later on in the day) sang “Calon Lan”. Following speeches from all the main dignitaries and organisers, including the main financier Sir Stanley Thomas, the statue was unveiled by Boston, Mills, Thomas, and relatives of the Sullivan and Risman families. Sullivan sadly died of cancer in 1985 aged just 42, whist Risman passed away in 1994 aged 83.

I had the chance to speak to Clive’s son Anthony Sullivan after the ceremony. Like Clive, he played for Wales in rugby league, but unlike his father, he was also able to play rugby union for Cardiff and Wales. By 2001, the prejudice, both of colour and professionalism, had disappeared from the union game, but even then, talk of a statue recognising rugby league players in Cardiff, would surely have been shunned.

“We’d never thought this would happen 20 years ago,” Anthony admits. “My dad would have been humbled to have been recognised in such a way. Honoured to have been there with Billy and Gus.

“It’s been special for my family and I to come down and see the statue. I went to my first game with dad playing when I was two weeks old in December 1968 and continued to watch him until he retired. He and other paved the way for me, they gave us expectations to live up to.

“The last 12 months have been amazing for us as a family. Having the World Cup ball named after him, the documentary on the BBC, he was then inducted into the RFL Hall of Fame and this today has topped it all off.”

Sadly neither of Risman’s rugby-playing sons were able to be at the ceremony. We lost Bev less than a month ago and John was too ill to make the journey yesterday. However his grandson Martin Risman was present, and he said about Gus: “He was a very quiet humble man but very strong underneath it. He was as hard as nails on the rugby field but was very gentle and unassuming off the field. To be commemorated with Billy and Clive on the same statue here in the iconic Cardiff Bay, he’d have loved it.”

It took a long time, but the past was eventually commemorated with something that will live on forever and for that, we thank everyone who was involved in the Codebreaker project. It’s been a tough battle, as it always has been with rugby league in Wales, but it’s something that we continue with.

We keep going. We will have a record number of participants in rugby league in Wales in 2023. We’ll continue to field sides in the men’s, women’s, wheelchair and physical disability games, and players as young as six years old have been playing rugby league in Wales this year.

I know Billy Boston is proud to see all of this, as he was to have witnessed his statue being unveiled. Yesterday he met one of the current Wales U16 internationals in Finlay Walker, whose only just turned 15 years old. He will be hoping to win his second cap for Wales on Saturday, when they face Ireland in Rhyl.

Boston, Sullivan, Risman are the inspiration to those who are following, and long may that continue.