Shane Stephen Sullivan
A solidly built tighthead prop, Shane Sullivan was considered “the” bolter of the 1969 Wallaby tour to South Africa, not due to his rugby abilities, but more because of two highly rated front row forwards who did not win selection.
Born and raised in Brisbane, Sullivan played his first rugby at Ashgrove Marist before he transferred to Nudgee Junior College and later St Joseph’s Nudgee College. Unlike many of Nudgee’s future Wallabies, Sullivan did not enjoy an unbroken progression from one ‘A’ team to the next. He started at No.8 in the 15Es, then 15Bs, the 6th XV, the 4th XV and in his final year (1963) the 1st XV to emulate the achievement of his father John (1932-33). Sullivan later recalled the skill of his 1st XV coach Br Bede McKennariey in ‘Of Great and Good Men’: “He was a great coach. He knew a lot about rugby and opened our eyes to the possibilities. He was the best coach I had at Nudgee, and, to be honest, probably the best coach I ever had. McKennariey was a quiet man who never raised his voice and was thoughtful in whatever he said to you, His criticisms were always very constructive.”
Sullivan also provided some wonderful insights into one of Australia’s great rugby nurseries when he wrote: ‘The notion of Nudgee spirit was all pervasive, pretty much you just lived it [rugby]. The first weekend of the rugby season we had to know all the members of the 1st XV and their positions. If you did not know them, you didn’t get in to see the movies on a Saturday night. The prefects stood outside asking questions such as, ‘Who is the halfback of the 1st XV?’ and if you didn’t know, you didn’t get in. On Friday afternoons, each of the dorms - they were stacked on top of each other - had to stand on their verandas and do a war cry. We did the same thing when a 1st XV came home after a victory. It was all pervasive. Rugby became a bit of an obsession. It was expected that you won. There was no ‘We’re going to go out and have a go’; it was, ‘You are playing for Nudgee, you are playing at home, there is only one result.’”
Outside of school and rugby Sullivan enjoyed water polo and he was an active member of the Northcliffe Surf Life Saving Club.
In 1964 Sullivan played U19s before he gave the game away for two seasons. In 1967 he enrolled in Medicine at the University of Queensland and began his grade football career with Brothers, predominantly as a tighthead prop forward. A year later Sullivan made his state debut, alongside his Brothers’ teammate Peter Reilly, against New South Wales Country (D 15-15) at the newly opened Ballymore Oval. Sullivan played five games for Queensland that year yet somewhat fortuitously missed the comprehensive tour match loss to New Zealand (L 3-34). Sullivan’s year ended on a high note when Brothers won the Hospital Cup premiership with a 17-6 win over arch-rivals University.
The following year all of the rugby focus fell upon the imminent tour to South Africa. Sullivan, at tighthead, with Alec Evans at loosehead, played for Queensland in a series of tour trials. Rumours were rife that Evans, who was also the Queensland captain, had no chance of winning selection because he was considered ‘too rough’. QRU Chairman Barry Ffrench hit out at talk saying: “Evans is a magnificent player and one of the most respected in Queensland Rugby but he has been unfairly dealt with by sports writers.” Nonetheless when push came to shove Evans' name was not among the eight Queenslanders in the 30 man squad, one which remarkably included six men from Brothers - Barry Honan, Mick Barry, Rod Kelleher, Peter Moore, Reilly and Sullivan.
Discussing the selection of the front row forwards years later, selector Joe French said: “Roy Prosser, Jim Roxburgh and Jake Howard were obvious choices. (Bill) McLaughlin and (John) Bain would not have Alec Evans for the fourth prop spot and they didn’t want Ross Turnbull. They wanted a New South Wales Country player, but I said ‘We can’t pick someone we haven’t seen. What about Shane Sullivan?’ The others went for him.” Alongside Evans, “the most surprising omission” was another prop, Ross Turnbull, who had toured to Ireland and Scotland with Australia in 1968.
During the tour, Prosser, Roxburgh and Howard alternated for the major games with Prosser and Roxburgh the Test props. However, Sullivan did get a late call-up for the match against the highly rated Western Province side when Roxburgh withdrew. He found himself up against the former Springbok tighthead prop, Gert Kotze, a redoubtable scrummager. The Wallabies led 14-0 at one stage but Province pulled back eight points and looked dangerous when H.O. de Villiers took a quick tap and broke clear. He seemed certain to score when Sullivan came from the clouds to tackle the startled fullback - a remarkable effort from a prop forward. Sullivan later said, “I played in some great games – one in particular against Western Province which I thought might be enough to win me a Test spot. I didn’t make it, but I had been labelled a bolter which is hard to escape. I trained as hard as anyone did, but it just didn’t happen.”
He played in 11 of the 24 matches and was in the winning side on a very commendable nine occasions. Sullivan did improve throughout the tour and gave his hookers excellent support. Geoff Shaw commented: “The hookers, (Paul) Darveniza and (Bruce) Taafe, swore by Sullivan for a quick strike but he was somewhat handicapped around the field by a lack of mobility.”
Upon his return to Australia, Sullivan left for the U.K. to study medicine at the internationally renowned St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. While there Sullivan played rugby, against the likes of Welsh great J.P.R. Williams, in the highly competitive Hospitals Cup. He returned to Australia in 1978, worked at the Prince Alfred, Adelaide and Toowoomba Hospitals and later set up a general practice in Toowoomba.
Sullivan started 11 matches on the Wallaby tour of South Africa - vs. Orange Free State Country District at Welkom (W 47-9); vs. Rhodesia at Bulawayo (W 16-11); vs. Eastern Province at Port Elizabeth (W 17-0); vs. Border at East London (W 22-9); vs. Far Northern Transvaal at Pietersburg (W 26-0); vs. Western Province at Cape Town (W 14-8); vs. Central Universities at Port Elizabeth (W 26-11); vs. Orange Free State at Bloemfontein (W 25-14); vs. Western Transvaal at Potchefstroom (L 6-18); vs. North West Cape at Upington (W 37-6); and vs. Combined Services at Pretoria (L 3-19)