Page 1: Biography
Sullivan, John Lorraine
Rugby player, driver, salesman, rugby coach and administrator, company director
This biography, written by Robin C. McConnell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
John (Jack) Lorraine Sullivan was born on 30 March 1915 at Tahora, near Whangamomona, Taranaki. He was the son of Violet Anna Roos, who was New Zealand-born but of Danish and Norwegian descent, and her husband, George Sullivan, an Australian-born labourer and tunneller. Jack attended Raekohua School, Tangarakau, and played schoolboy rugby for King Country. He then joined New Plymouth’s Tukapa club and played for Taranaki from 1934 until 1940; he later became a life member of both his club and the Taranaki Rugby Football Union. His brothers Colin and George were also prominent in rugby, the former representing Taranaki and the latter becoming an international referee. On leaving school Jack worked as a grocer’s assistant and carpenter before joining the Texas Company (Texaco) as an oil-tanker driver in 1939.
Sullivan played for the North Island team from 1936 to 1939, and his strong running and defensive skills quickly led to selection for the All Blacks. He was to appear in nine matches for New Zealand, including six tests. His first test was at Wellington in the 1937 series against South Africa. Playing at centre, he established a reputation for his wholehearted play, earning the respect of his opponents. At five feet ten inches and 12½ stone he was one of the lighter three-quarters in the All Blacks. In the second test he scored two tries, one of which – after an intercept and a tense kick-and-chase – was among the most memorable in All Black rugby. He was selected on the wing for the third test, reducing his effectiveness, and New Zealand lost the series. In 1938 Sullivan’s reputation as an outstanding back was confirmed on New Zealand’s tour of Australia. Playing at second five-eighth in the first two tests and centre in the third, he impressed Australian critics with his strength, skill and try-scoring ability.
During the Second World War Sullivan served in the Middle East and Italy as a private (later lance corporal) in the 22nd Battalion. He played in three of the wartime rugby matches between New Zealand and South African services teams. In November 1941 he captained the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) team to a famous victory at Baggush, scoring the only try in the game. He was wounded in the leg during the New Zealand Division’s breakout from Minqâr Qaim in June 1942, and again in August. An injury to his other leg while playing rugby against the South Africans in Egypt in December that year ended his playing career.
After the war Sullivan returned to New Plymouth and joined Caltex Oil (New Zealand), becoming a salesman and driver. He married Mary Catherine Ellen Vickery, a clerk, on 28 June 1947 at New Plymouth; they were to have a son and a daughter. That year he moved into rugby administration as Taranaki’s selector-coach, a position he held until 1952 and again in 1954. He was a North Island selector from 1952 to 1959 and an All Black selector from 1954 to 1960. In 1958 he was assistant manager of the New Zealand junior (under 23) team on its undefeated tour of Japan and Hong Kong. He then coached the All Blacks to series wins over Australia (1958) and the British Lions (1959).
In 1960 Jack Sullivan was assistant manager and coach of the All Black team to tour South Africa. The team, captained by Wilson Whineray and managed by Tom Pearce, lost the series, and although highly respected for his personal qualities and rugby knowledge, Sullivan’s tenure as coach was not regarded as successful. Elected to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) executive in 1962, he served until 1965 and again in 1967–68. He was chairman of the NZRFU from 1969 to 1977, and was elected a life member in his final year.
As chairman of the NZRFU Sullivan was often criticised for his ‘no comment’ responses to questions on apartheid in South Africa and its relationship to rugby. His attitude arose from a sincere belief that sport and politics could, and should, remain separate. A close friend of South African Rugby Board chairman Danie Craven (whom he had played against in 1937), Sullivan was a strong supporter of rugby contact with South Africa, and under his chairmanship the All Blacks toured the republic twice, in 1970 and 1976. He was deeply disappointed when pressure from the Labour government led to the cancellation of a proposed 1973 Springbok tour of New Zealand.
Sullivan had moved to Wellington in 1960 to become national sales manager for Caltex. After a period in New York in 1965, he became managing director of the New Zealand company in 1967. He was also a director (and chairman 1969–70) of the New Zealand Refining Company. He was made a CBE in 1978 and retired from Caltex in 1980. He served as chairman of the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Society Trusteeship Scheme and as president of the New Zealand Paraplegic and Physically Disabled Federation. In retirement he was an active lawn bowler. Jack Sullivan died on 9 July 1990 in Wellington, survived by his wife and children. He was buried at Te Henui cemetery, New Plymouth.