Books for Christmas: Rugby Union: Cautionary tale for keepers of the 15-a-side code

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AS SPORT strides boldly towards a new millennium - an online, all-seater, mega-salaried, video-enhanced, digitally obsessed, cyber-literate, virtual-reality kind of millennium, complete with money-grabbing pay-per- view packages and wall-to-wall Murdoch - spare a thought for poor old rugger, not so much the ultimate players' game as the ultimate political football. A century or so ago, a wing-collared, handlebar-moustached Rugby Football Union president by the name of Arthur Budd politely blamed "the working man" for ruining his favourite pastime.

Little has changed. Today, the 15-man code is still used, abused and bedevilled by a rogues' gallery of deluded control freaks who consider it their personal property.

Thank heaven, then, for Sean Smith and his timely tome The Union Game (BBC, pounds 16.99). As Smith is no rugby obsessive - his previous subjects include the Hillsborough tragedy, the royal family and the Rolling Stones, which suggest a certain breadth of interest - he sees his subject for what it is and, by looking back rather than forward, performs the enormously important service of reminding the sport of those things it chooses to forget. What things, you ask? Well, how about apartheid, Vichy France and rampant public school snobbery for starters? Rugby may not like the fact that Dr Verwoerd and Marshal Petain made a bigger impact on the 20th century game than Gareth Edwards or Jonah Lomu, but it is a fact none the less.

Smith emerges as a fearless chronicler with a strong anti-establishment streak, in so far as his theme is the exploitation of rugby by establishments of differing hues and characters. If he is excellent on the myth of William Webb Ellis, the alleged inventor of the handling game, and the cultural hijacking of the sport by the public school elite, he is equally illuminating on the dark history of Springbok rugby and the appeasement of apartheid by the union authorities in New Zealand, who happily sent all-white teams on All Black tours of South Africa and persisted in their refusal to mix politics and sport until the men and women in the street did their mixing for them in 1981.

Yet it is Smith's chapter on French rugby that really hits home. He examines the bloodthirsty nature of the Tricolore game in the 1920s, when players died on the killing fields of the South-west, and records how rugby league, backed by the communist and socialist coalition that formed a Popular Front government in 1936, came to prominence after the French were expelled from the Five Nations' Championship for flouting amateur regulations. Crucially, he also explains how Petain and his collaborationist regime signed a decree banning rugby league and forced the 13-a-siders to hand over their assets to a newly-created National Sports Committee, which promptly used its ill-gotten gains to finance a union resurgence.

It is not an uplifting read, but a chastening and cautionary one: as the author says in his own "post-mortem" chapter, rugby has been "a breeding ground for conflict and division throughout its history". And despite the lessons of a hundred years or more, those who call themselves "rugby people" still fight each other for ownership of the game. Unless the entire union community accepts that the sport belongs to everyone and no one and rid themselves of the "our game" mentality, it will not survive another century.

As we are in serious mood, an unusually highbrow treatise on the oval ball and its spin-offs is worthy of reflection. Making the Rugby World: Race, Gender, Commerce (Cass, pounds 42.50) is the latest contribution to bump- and-grind literature by Timothy Chandler, of Kent State University in Ohio, and his fellow editor from the University of Queensland, John Nauright. A heavy read it is, too: essays entitled "Maori Rugby and Masculinity in New Zealand" and "Recognition through Resistance: Rugby In the USA" make this a very different kettle of subordinate clauses to, say, In Your Face: A Rugby Odyssey by that well-known academic, Richard Cockerill.

The issues explored - homophobia, nationalism, globalisation, gender, commercialisation - are hardly everyday talking points in the average clubhouse bar, where dyed-in-the-wool rugger-buggers prefer to discuss the price of a pint and the pathetic inability of their own scrum-half to pass off his left hand. But there are some green shoots of inspiration amongst the heavily politicised verbiage, not least in a challenging piece on the game in post-apartheid South Africa by Douglas Booth.

It comes as something of a relief to report that there is nothing nearly so migraine-inducing in the pages of Edmund van Esbeck's handsomely packaged celebration, simply and accurately entitled Irish Rugby 1874- 1999: A History (Gill and Macmillan, pounds 25). Van Esbeck, every bit as warm and affectionate a guide as he is a press box colleague, draws on his 30 years as the rugby correspondent of the Irish Times in plotting a path through a century and a quarter of Emerald Isle competition, and he takes justifiable pleasure in the fact that in Ireland, the union game has lived up to the promise of its name by uniting north and south in common sporting cause.

The camerawork is superb; by some trick of the photographer's art, even Willie Duggan is made to look like an athlete. More striking still are the appendices, which are sufficiently detailed and wide-ranging to send the statistical anorak fraternity straight into heavenly orbit. They begin on page 279 with the laws of rugby (as adopted by the general meeting of the Dublin University Football Club in October 1868), and end on page 452, with the winners of the Connacht Schools Junior Cup champions. Van Esbeck is nothing if not comprehensive.

Of the ghosted autobiographies, the aforementioned contribution of Leicester's rent-a-tirade hooker has attracted most of the attention. And rightly so. In Your Face... (Mainstream, pounds 15.00) is pure, unadulterated Cockerill: blunt, aggressive, devil-may-carish and utterly devoid of airs and graces. No one could accuse him picking easy targets; the fact that Dean Richards and Clive Woodward both cop it is unlikely to improve the author's career prospects. But then, who needs rugby when the literary world is there for the taking? Arise Sir Cockers of Welford Road, Nobel Laureate in waiting.

Chris Hewett