BOOK OF THE WEEK : Backstage with Carling's England

Band of Brothers - A celebration of the England Rugby Union squad By Frank Keating. Photographs by Jon Nicholson (Michael Joseph, pounds 20)

It is all very well commissioning a fly-on-the-wall book, but you have to accept everything that is then chronicled, warts and all. The publishers had originally asked Frank Keating for 60,000 words: presumably they had budgeted for the pagination, type-setting and other production costs before making the commission.

Keating, a highly accomplished writer and thorough professional, set about what was something of a rush job; dogging Will Carling and his men through an international season, from team coach to hotel, from training pitch to dressing room before and after every match.

It is reasonable to expect a fair few interesting tit-bits from such unprecedented access behind-the-scenes, but remarkably, even accepting that he had overwritten by 10,000 words, Keating was informed, while wrapping up the final chapter of a superbly produced book, that it was being cut from 60,000 to 40,000.

An item cut that Keating feels was most revealing was a chunk on the letters and telegrams received by the new caps; 800 words was turned into about 100 words according to the author. Never mind, there are plenty of other revealing items. The Twickenham authorities apparently proved tolerant, only removing what were deemed to be unnecessary four-letter words in the pre-match hype and hyperventilation in the dressing room, and the squad's idea of an amusing farewell video to Carling, which in Keating's words was "too downright crude... to be repeated".

There are snippets such as Dean Richards shedding a tear after the Calcutta Cup match, or, more poignantly, the description of the replacements who have to leave the dressing room for the bench -"that lonely lower grandstand seat of rejection" - as the 15 get together for the huddle. Keating captures the scene brilliantly.

Keating's status in the world of sports writing is unquestioned, his wizardry with words and ability to capture mood and emotion second to none. The photographer Jon Nicholson is described as "one of the foremost sport and reportage photographers of the 90s", which may be slightly overstated. Certainly a lot of his pictures, notably the black and white ones, are startlingly evocative, capturing a mood or a thought or a moment magnificently, and they complement Keating's words well, but each shot irritatingly carries a caption by Nicholson which appears to try to out-Keating Keating.

The pair have produced a memorable, and rare work. The access they were given was remarkable. Keating said that Will Carling was amazingly helpful, although early on a testy Jack Rowell had Keating threatening to drop the project because the coach wanted to exclude the author from his team talks. Thankfully the odd crease was ironed out and there is enough in this book to open the eyes of England fans. It is well worth reading, although it would still be interesting to know just what was cut out.

David Llewellyn

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