A fulfilling tour around the University of Life

Chris Hewett on some good reads from the world of rugby union
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The Independent Online
Clem Thomas was not the easiest man in the world to stop, as the whole of South Africa discovered in 1955 and sundry sports editors came to realise in the decades following his relocation from rugby pitch to rugby press-box. On his single Lions tour as a player 41 years ago, he was struck down by acute appendicitis yet missed only 10 matches. He was always one to see things through and this book, published, posthumously, proves the point.

The History of the British Lions (Mainstream, pounds 15.99) was an appropriate subject for Thomas to tackle towards the end of his life for of all rugby institutions, the Lions were closest to his heart. Why? Because that journey to South Africa under Robin Thompson was one of the defining episodes of his adulthood; as he says in his vivid account of the trip, he and his colleagues returned home "finer players and better men for such an amazing and fulfilling experience. We had enjoyed a crash course in the University of Life."

Informative, attentive to detail, often opinionated but always warm, the book is a singular pleasure. It pulls no punches and wastes little time on the niceties of fine prose, preferring to rattle along at pace; only once does Thomas linger long over a particular tour - his own - and this is the most compelling chapter, enriched and embellished by sharply- etched personal memories seamlessly inserted into the cut and thrust of the action. He is best on the years between Karl Mullen's 1950 Lions and Willie John McBride's 1974 vintage - the Buccaneers, the Toilers and Gloria In Excelsis are the headings - and at the risk of sounding sentimental, those descriptions come close to capturing the spirit of the writer, too.

Peter Corrigan's excellent collaboration with Jonathan Davies in Code Breaker (Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99) puts a whole raft of less imaginative, less honest rugby autobiographies to the sword. Here is a book worthy of its subject - no small claim, given the extraordinary achievements of the boy from Trimsaran - and it is hard to see how either Corrigan or Davies could have handled the task more capably.

Such a hyperactive bundle of burning energy during his Union heyday in the mid-1980s, Davies emerges as a suprisingly reflective human being, a truly great player who, for all the humbug and gross hypocrisy confronted during his wanderings from 15-a-side to 13-a-side and back, has succeeded in extinguishing his anger and developing in its place a cool sense of perspective.

Code Breaker gives simple chronology a wide berth and, as a result, there is an unpredictable element encountered in all but the very best sports writing. Corrigan does the reader a service by flatly refusing to regurgitate endless torrents of dry statistical information; his job was to help Davies bare his soul rather than raid the record-books and he played the role to perfection.

The surprise package of the year was undoubtedly Rugby: A Referee's Guide (CollinsWillow, pounds 5.99) by Ed Morrison, an exceptional official but no poet, and his friend Derek Robinson, a novelist and broadcaster who also happens to know a ruck from a punch-up. The title is not exactly sexy, but the contents display a sharp wit as well as a wholly admirable determination to explain the whys and wherefores of the rule-book without boring everyone to death.

Forget Cliff Brittle, Sir John Hall and Rupert Murdoch for a moment. English rugby - indeed, rugby worldwide - was built on the backs of men like Morrison, uncomplaining and selfless sorts who spend hour after unpaid hour making sure that their local club-mates have somewhere to change, somewhere to play and somewhere to drink every Saturday afternoon between September and May. He may have been the 1995 World Cup final referee, but Morrison still acts as fixture secretary for Harlequins - Bristol Harlequins, that is, not the sponsored silver-spoon brigade from Twickenham.

Robinson's light touch with the pen brings out the earthy humour of the game. At the same time, he illuminates the darkest corners of the referee's psychology by cleverly broadening a straightforward question-and-answer technique into a more sophisticated form of interrogation. Don't judge this one by its title.

Alex Spink's Rugby Union Who's Who (CollinsWillow, pounds 9.99) gets bigger and better with full coverage of events south of the Equator.

However, it is worth the cover price just to savour the unlikely interests of some of the Test players featured in the book. Unbelievably, the troublesome Irish prop Peter Clohessy spends his leisure time water ski-ing; Steve Williams, the Welsh loose-forward, lists his pastimes as "Weightwatchers and break dancing"; while Graham Dawe, the former England hooker, admits to sheep-shearing and bell-ringing as relaxations. Heaven help the sheep if he gets the two mixed up.

Rothman's Rugby Union Year Book (Mick Cleary & John Griffiths, Headline, pounds 16.99): Rugby's Wisden, is a statistician's dream.

The Carling Years (Mick Cleary, Victor Gollancz, pounds 16.99): English rugby's golden era rehashed. Cracking prose, shame about the pictures.

Playfair Rugby Union Annual (Bill Day & Brendan Gallagher, Headline, pounds 4.99): Small in format, big on detail. Supremely useful.