Books for Christmas: Baptists of fire and Boks of delight

The nature of rugby genius and the genealogy of a tennis institution provide the festive focus
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The Independent Online
FIRST, A warning. The most vivid, enjoyable page-turner of a rugby book issued this year - or, to be absolutely accurate, reissued this year - is so completely wholesome that it stands out from its rivals like a clean-cut chorister in an alley full of gangsta-rappers. There is no sex, no drugs - not even the merest trace of creatine - and the closest thing we get to rock 'n' roll is the odd blast of song from a few Welsh Baptists.

What Rugby: Body and Soul (Mainstream, pounds 9.99) does give us is a unique insider's account of the nature of sporting genius. More than that, it is a glorious, if somewhat wistful, hymn to the union game as a unifying social and cultural force. Its author, Bill Samuel, grew up in the Swansea Valley village of Craig-cefn-parc, mined coal at the Clydach Merthyr Colliery, turned out for rugby clubs from Vardre to Cardiff via St Luke's College and Llanelli, and, some eight years after taking a teaching post in Pontardawe, took under his wing a gifted young nobody by the name of Gareth Edwards.

The rest, as they say, is history. And what a history it is. Samuel, an unfailingly modest witness as well as an incisive and entertaining one, tells his tale without fuss or artifice as he places the great scrum- half-to-be in the unglamorous but richly supportive context of his West Walian surroundings. If you can smell the sweat and the liniment, you can also revel in the soft, damp earth of a wonderful rugby nation at the height of its magnificence. Deeply touching and, in places, genuinely funny.

Edwards plays a part in the second of this season's outpourings of red- shirted Welshness. You might ask why a good Ulsterman like Peter Jackson, rugby correspondent of the Daily Mail, should spend his free time recording the memories of the Lions of Wales (Mainstream, pounds 14.99), but he has lived in Cardiff for more years than anyone cares to remember and besides, any account of the `Lions of Ireland' would have sent his already legendary phone bill into orbit.

Jackson's choice of interviewees is inspired: all the Olympian heroes - Gareth, Barry, JPR, Merv the Swerve - have a chapter to themselves, as do the natural comics. Bobby Windsor's contribution is chokingly, rip- roaringly hilarious - the story of the gin, the ice cube and the airborne thermometer is a classic - while Delme Thomas, that great man of Stradey, leaves an equally deep impression of rugger-bugger bonhomie. Add to this the author's eye for a story, whether it be the truth behind Barry John's premature retirement or Mervyn Davies' near-fatal brain haemorrhage, and you have a fine read on your hands.

Which is more than can be said for Bill McLaren's Dream Lions (Collins Willow, pounds 16.99), a depressingly unilluminating thumbnail sketch of the leading British Isles performers of the last 25 years or so. Apart from the odd error of fact and carelessly miscaptioned photograph, there is at least one selectorial misjudgement: the absence of Ben Clarke, by common consent the outstanding performer in the 1993 series in New Zealand, as one of the four finest blind-side flankers of the most recent Lions era. Worse still, the writing lacks both humour and anecdotal colour.

Thankfully, that disappointment is counterbalanced by Peter Bills' chirpy labour of love, Passion in Exile: 100 Years of London Irish RFC (Mainstream, pounds 20). Mind you, if you can't crack a a joke or three with this subject matter, you should consider a stint on the EastEnders script-writing team. Consider Tommy Joy, a stalwart Exiles prop from the 1960s: "I remember Dick Spring [the full-back who would later rise to Deputy Taoiseach of the Dil] coming over; we shovelled concrete together on a building site in Hammersmith. He did it for a couple of days, then went off to New York. He was a very nice fellow. He liked his pint and his parties. But I'd have to be honest and tell yer, he wasn't much bloody good at shovelling concrete."

Of course, today's pampered professionals are not required to shovel anything other than pound coins. They can still talk, though, and they do so in numbers to Donald McRae, whose Winter Colours (Mainstream, pounds 16.99) is this year's most obvious attempt to give rugby reportage a literary gloss. McRae, himself South African, takes his Springbok upbringing as the launchpad for a meandering ramble through big-time union. It has its lows and its longueurs, but few of its 387 pages miss the mark entirely. Indeed, McRae's opening salvo, an emotional examination of his own apartheid- scarred sporting background, is easily the most involving piece of rugby writing of the last 12 months. If the rest of the book fails to maintain this early momentum, the failure is wholly understandable.