Books for Christmas: Barnes finds treasure in the deep waters of Bath as Lions suffer from overpopulation

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The Independent Online
During his notoriously contrary career as an occasional England outside-half, Stuart Barnes seldom wavered in his profound commitment to the virtues of champagne rugby (not to mention claret rugby, cognac rugby and good, old-fashioned best bitter rugby).

However, beneath the bon viveur's exterior beat a heart of purest dog- eat-dog ambition. Barnes understood the forces at work in his natural habitat, the Bath dressing-room, better than anyone, largely because he was responsible for setting many of those forces in motion.

It is, therefore, safe to say that his third book, Rugby's New-Age Travellers (Mainstream, pounds 14.99), was a surefire winner from the outset, just as his beloved club were surefire winners in their decade-long heyday. The centrepiece is an absorbing 40-page discourse on the decline and fall of Bath as the most successful, trophy-laden side in the history of the English game and, quite frankly, it knocks spots off anything written on rugby this year.

That includes substantial chunks of the Barnes book itself. He is typically opinionated, but generally unilluminating on the Rugby Football Union's white-knuckle ride over broadcasting rights - given his high-profile and disgustingly well-paid television role with Sky, anything more would have been both remarkable and suicidal - and while his summaries of the Five Nations and Lions campaigns are entertaining enough, he breaks little new ground.

So what? The chapter on Bath takes the reader into very deep waters indeed and succeeds on any number of fronts: as a cautionary tale of the perils and pitfalls of professionalism, as a study in sporting naivete, as a moral fable on the vulnerability of long-cherished friendships in a winner- takes-all environment. As usual, Barnes wears his literary learning loudly - there are, it seems, references to everyone from Aristotle to Zola - but he also reveals himself as a highly capable journalist. Certainly, he coaxed more from two of the central figures in the Bath plot, Brian Ashton and Tony Swift, than any number of hardened Fleet Street veterans.

Barnes must have been tempted to give last summer's Lions triumph a wide berth, if only because every other rugby writer in Christendom was doing a number on the tour. We now have definitive tomes, most of them ghosted, from the coach (Heroes All by Ian McGeechan, Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 16.99), the manager (My Pride of Lions by Fran Cotton, Ebury Press, pounds 14.99), the captain (The Lions Raw by Martin Johnson, Mainstream, pounds 15.99), the bounty- hunter (The Lions Diary by Jeremy Guscott, Michael Joseph, pounds 16.99), the tour headcase (Lions Uncaged by John Bentley, Chameleon, pounds 12.99), the commentator (Best Seat in the House by Miles Harrison, Aurum Press, pounds 14.95) and a curious, Boy's Own Annual-style effort called Glory, Glory Lions (Chris Dighton and Iain Spragg, Bookman Projects, pounds 9.99). Overkill? You could say. At this rate, we will soon have a sixth Spice Girl called, um, Lion Spice.

Generally speaking, this torrent of print covers the subject with so little imagination that the already well-trodden ground is beginning to resemble the Old Muckyduckians training pitch on a wet Wednesday night.

The various books do, however, reflect the characters behind them: if Cotton is bluff and to the point and Johnson abrupt and determinedly unromantic, Harrison gives us an engagingly breathless fan's eye-view, while Bentley plays the madcap card for all it is worth.

Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain, is also on the shelves (as opposed to on the shelf, like one or two fellow Wasps who have seen their Test careers disappear in a puff of acrid smoke over the last month or so).

In Diary of a Season (Virgin, pounds 16.99), he gives his personal account of a campaign in which he lost out to Phil de Glanville in the national leadership stakes but won just about everything else: notably the Courage League title, a Lions Test place and lashings of respect.

Again, the publication accurately reflects the subject. Dallaglio is up front and honest on a number of tricky issues, including the captaincy business and the extremely serious spat between the RFU and Epruc the senior clubs' pressure group, and his insatiable competitive spirit is apparent in every sentence.

Just a couple of points. Firstly, Barnes is probably better on Dallaglio than Dallaglio himself (a revealing chapter in Rugby's New-Age Travellers tells us much of what we need to know). Secondly, it would have been nice of the publishers to have at least acknowledged the existence of Dallaglio's collaborator, Barry Newcombe, the former Sunday Express correspondent. After all, it was Newcombe who wrote the thing and he delivered a very decent manuscript.