Illustrating accounts of sex, lives and visual hype from Bradford to Australia

Books for Christmas
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Not a vintage year as far as the quantity of rugby league books goes, 1997 has made up for it with quality and contrast.

Take two offerings from opposite ends of last season's Super League experience, for example. Running With The Bulls by Graham Clay (League Publications, pounds 9.99) is a rapidly produced account of Bradford's title-winning season, but very nicely put together by a workaholic who took most of the 200 photos as well as writing the text.

Not every season at any old club would justify this sort of obsessive, blow-by-blow account, but 1997 at Odsal most certainly does. Bradford's legion of fans will pounce on it for Christmas, but those with a more general interest in the game will enjoy it for the light it throws on what it takes to produce the success that the Bulls wallowed in this year.

The timing of Oldham RLFC: The Complete History 1876-1997 by Michael Turner (self-published, pounds 19) could hardly be more poignant.

Although the project had been simmering for years, it came to the boil just as the club was going to the wall a few weeks ago. The complete history was in danger of becoming more literally complete than Turner or any of the other devotees of one of the game's original clubs wanted to contemplate.

In the event, the launch of a new Oldham club is recognised by a last- minute insert slipped into the book. The game lives to fight another day in the town and the book is an eloquent illustration of why it matters.

If ever a club had a monument to the richness of its history, then this book is it. It is the first English club history of its quality and the first to compare with the best of the Australian equivalents.

Having said that, it might be a few years before the game in Britain yields a biography as revealing as Ian Roberts: Finding Out by Paul Freeman (Random House, $29.95 in Australia, awaiting publication here).

Roberts, the former Manly (that's the club, for heavens sake) and Australia prop, has an astonishing story to tell. It's the story of how he concealed something he had known from the start of his rugby career - namely that he was, as he puts it, just about as queer as it was possible to be - and how he has, over the last year or so, come out as the game's first openly gay player.

Everyone already knew Roberts was a singularly tough player. The mental toughness it has taken to stand up to the abuse that has come his way since he went on the record about his sexuality is something else again. But, as he says: "What can they tell me that I don't know."

Using a writer from the Sydney gay scene gives the book a depth of insight into Roberts' "other" life, away from the rugby field, that could not have been achieved in any other way.

You get an occasional feeling of being harangued about the unfairness of the world to gays, but that is a small price to pay for such an extraordinary life story. It is not necessary to fancy Ian Roberts to find it compelling reading.

Offiah: My Autobiography by Martin Offiah with David Lawrenson (Collins Willow, pounds 15.99) might seem straightforward stuff by comparison, although set alongside the 1993 offering from the same team it is positively soul- baring.

Offiah has always been one of the harder men in the game to get to know, but he opens up considerably in this book, even to the extent of debunking rumours that he too is gay.

The most interesting episode of his story is the new material about his return to rugby union with Bedford and his discovery that the grass was not really greener.

Arko - My Game by Ken Arthurson (Ironbark, 15.95 from Open Rugby) is an important document in the recent history of the game, especially for the veteran Australian administrator's account of the Super League war. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the saga that his British counterpart, Maurice Lindsay, does not get a great press.

Sex rears its head again, I'm afraid, in Inside Out - Rugby League Under Scrutiny by Roy Masters (Ironbark, pounds 13.95 from Open Rugby).

It's the usual Masters mixture of pretentious gobbledegook and dazzling insight. It's worth wading through a lot of dross to find out that the first job that the architect of Super League, John Ribot, had when he came to play in Sydney was repossessing televisions. Better still is an anecdote about the Test scrum-half, Ricky Stuart, who awoke after a big night out with his team-mates staring at a ceiling that he knew was not his.

Beside him, to his horror, was his coach's wife. There's a promising career over, thinks Stuart, until he turns the other way and finds, to his enormous relief, his coach.

If ever a night deserved a book of its own, that must be it.