Laughton's colourful ramble gives taste of brutal career

Christmas Books: Former Widnes forward's autobiography is pick of rugby league's offerings
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The Independent Online

Notable careers, some long over and others still developing, are the theme of this Christmas's rugby league reading.

A Dream Come True: A Rugby League Life (London League Publications, £14.95) is Doug Laughton's account of 40 years in the game as player and coach. He was a colourful character, even by the rugby league standards of his times, whose teams - especially at Widnes - played with a panache that few have matched.

This book captures much of that, as well as bringing to life his trepidation as a young, would-be ball-playing forward coming into the game at a time when it was far more brutal than it is today.

Laughton has the disconcerting habit of referring to himself in the third person as "Douglas," which can occasionally stop the reader in his tracks. His autobiography undeniably has its rough edges, but the effect is not unlike sitting down with him in his little office at Naughton Park, over a fag and a mug of tea, and listening to him ramble on. It is none the worse for that.

A career, both as player and coach, which compared with Laughton's was that of the New Zealander, Ces Mountford. From his roots in the tiny settlement of Blackball on the remote west coast of the South Island, Mountford became one of the most celebrated players in the world, particularly during his five years playing stand-off for Wigan.

He later took charge at Warrington, leading them to their triumphs of the early 1950s, before returning to New Zealand to coach the national side through one of its most exciting periods.

Kiwis, Wigan and the Wire (London League Publications, £9.95) is his recollection of this most varied rugby league life. It might not be the most significant section in global terms, but I most enjoyed his descriptions of his early days, playing against teams of loggers and miners on the west coast - a real hotbed of the game and its culture.

Mountford might seem a distant figure to those who follow the game these days and this is a book that would have benefited from coming out 30 or 40 years earlier. But he is a towering personality in the history of the code and this is a case of better late than never.

One career which is still continuing - just about - is that of Dean Sampson. I noticed that he was recently suspended for "reckless behaviour" while playing for the Castleford amateur club, Lock Lane, but he will be better remembered for his eventful professional career.

There is a certain amount of reckless behaviour recalled in My Shangri La (Vertical Editions, £10.99). Apart from being one of the better prop forwards of his generation, Sampson is also one of the game's more outspoken characters.

In this book, however, he is guilty of a little self-censorship. Who was the Australian player he beat up in his hotel room after he upset his wife, for instance? It is a famous, although largely unreported, incident in Ashes history and we only get a partial account.

Through the occasional on- and off-field excesses, Sampson's burning enthusiasm for the game shines through. Although he is reluctant to retire as a player, his future is as a coach. If he makes it in that sphere, the game will be the more lively for it.

By contrast, the career of the Leeds captain, Kevin Sinfield, is just starting. His book, Life With Leeds Rhinos: A 2003 Rugby League Diary (with Philip Gordos, London League Publications, £9.95) is an insight into a young player's thoughts during a fluctuating season.

Sinfield experienced the highs and lows in two consecutive Challenge Cup matches, being acclaimed for winning the semi-final against St Helens and then vilified for not taking the shot at goal that could have saved Leeds in the final against Bradford.

Those experiences have not given him rhino-thick skin, because his diary reveals some irritation at the criticism he took last season - especially when that criticism was coming from one of his Leeds predecessors, Garry Schofield.

A rugby league career of a different sort is celebrated in Pitch Battles Galore (self-published, £7 softback, £10 hardback), the memoir of the groundsman, Brian Cartwright, who died in November. Copies might be difficult to obtain now, but any enthusiast for the game and its characters who sees one should pounce on it.

The West Country publishers, Tempus, have continued to expand their Classic series, with volumes devoted to 50 of the Finest Matches at Leeds and at Hull both priced £12.99.

The Leeds one says something deep and mysterious about the club that Sinfield could perhaps empathise with, because it includes some unforgettable defeats as well as the obvious victories.

The Rothmans Rugby League Yearbook has been much missed since its demise at the turn of the millennium, but the League Publications successor has been gradually expanding to fill the void. The Gillette Rugby League Yearbook 2003-4 (£14.99), the first one with those sponsors on board, is the most ambitious in scale so far.