Read all about it: the really stupid game

BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS: Rugby league's transformation has inspired many volumes. Dave Hadfield casts his eye over them
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The Independent Online
No doubt about the publishing event of the year in Wigan. At the shop there that shifts more rugby league literature than any other in the country, the definitive account of the local club's unforgettable last 15 years is outselling even Soul Survivors: The Wigan Casino Story.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Mainstream, pounds 15.99) was a story aching to be told and Paul Wilson, who chronicled it for papers in the town before graduating to this one, was ideally placed to tell it. He does so with great style and insight, so much so that it stands comparison with the account of the only comparable feat, Larry Writer's magnificent Never Before, Never Again about the equally dominant St George side of the 50s and 60s.

If Wigan have been the great running story of the last decade and a half, then the theme of the last year and a half has been Super League. Two books tell another compelling tale from radically different perspectives.

Simon Kelner's To Jerusalem and Back (Macmillan, pounds 14.99) is a heartfelt testament from a league traditionalist which is at its best reflecting on the past rather than reading the runes of the future.

For the blow-by-blow account of how it all happened, read Mike Colman's Super League: The Inside Story (Ironbark, pounds 14.99). This is a remarkably even-handed recounting of a tangled tale, especially considering that the author is a News Ltd journalist. It was written at half-time in the legal battle, with the Australian Rugby League still ahead on the scoreboard, so an updated edition is being prepared. In the meantime, this one is quite revealing enough.

The Rugby League's one-time archivist, Robert Gate, is another with strong views on events over the last couple of years. His foreword to The Struggle for the Ashes II (R E Gate, pounds 12.99) is a battlecry for all those who believe that the game and the best of its heritage have been sold down the river. The book itself is an update of his admirable 1984 tome, completely re- illustrated and thoroughly timely in view of the continuing dislocation of the tradition of Ashes series.

Super League also rears its head in my own latest foray into editing and writing, XIII Worlds (Mainstream, pounds 14.99), but so does much else. This is less a factual account of rugby league's fortunes around the globe than a sniff at the atmosphere of the game in its various settings. I believe - but then I would - that it is worth buying for Harry Edgar's musings on his beloved France alone. Hard core Francophiles might also try to track down Jacques-of-all-trades Louis Bonnery's Le Rugby a XIII (Cano & Franck, 200F, about pounds 30). It is expensive at current exchange rates, although not much more than a round of drinks in the environs of the Charlety Stadium, and it is, not surprisingly, in French, but it is a veritable treasure-trove.

One of the heartening features of the publishing scene over the last few years has been the vigorous activity of London League Publications. The Sin Bin (LLP, pounds 5.95) is amusing enough to qualify as that hardy annual, the ideal stocking-filler. Their guide to the grounds, the splendidly- titled I Wouldn't Start from Here (LLP, pounds 5) is also well worth having, although the London Broncos' move from The Valley has already rendered that section out of date.

The mighty Australian magazine, Rugby League Week, celebrated its quarter century last year and Rugby League Week: 25 Sensational Years (Harper Sports, pounds 16.50) is probably the best means of recalling how events during that period looked at the time.

Also from Australia, League of a Nation (ABC, pounds 13.50) is a stimulating collection of writings on the game, often from surprising viewpoints. Take this for an opening paragraph, for instance: "Football [by which the writer, Sydney-style, means rugby league] is stupid. It's really, really stupid. It's utterly stupid. How can I be so sure? Because that's exactly why the people who go to watch football like it. If it was any less stupid they wouldn't watch it." Discuss.

The indefatigable compilers of Rothmans Rugby League Yearbook had a problem this year: what to do with that best-forgotten, misbegotten final winter season. Their solution has been to produce a slimmer than usual volume to cover the 1996 season (Headline, pounds 16.99) with the magnum opus on the first Super League season to follow in the new year.

To some extent, the equally tenacious chaps at League Express have beaten them to it, bringing out their Super League '96 (League Publications, pounds 12.99), covering the season up to and including the ill-fated-tour of New Zealand, in time for Christmas. It was a rush job - and in places that shows - but a mighty effort all the same.

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