Rugby League: Books for Christmas - Extraordinary tales of Lions, Cougars and rugby mascots

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The Independent Online
NOT A year to make the rugby league bookshelves groan under the strain, but there has been one major, weighty tome and several books that are, for one reason or another, out of the ordinary.

The most significant new addition is Rugby's Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football by Tony Collins (Frank Vass, pounds 20). It is the most detailed and perceptive account yet of the events around the great schism.

This might be the era when we are all supposed to be mates together - at least when it suits the rugby union authorities - but this book is a timely reminder that rugby league really is radically different in its underlying attitudes as well as in having a couple of players less. For those of us of a certain age, Malcolm Reilly embodies those differences better than most. Reilly, by Malcolm Reilly with Ian Heads (Ironbark, unpriced), has so far only been published in Australia. In the meantime, Open Rugby magazine is trying to get some copies.

It is worth getting, because Reilly genuinely occupies a unique position in the game, as the only Pom to cut the mustard in Australia as both player and coach.

The single-mindedness that made that possible is evident in this well above average autobiography, especially in his descriptions of "getting his retaliation in first" as a marked man at Manly in the 1970s. He is strong, too, on the subject of his relationships and subsequent fall-outs with Maurice Lindsay and Ellery Hanley.

Rugby Rebel by Alan Tait with Bill Lothian (Mainstream, pounds 14.99) is representative of a genre that has only recently become possible - the memoir of a union player turned to league and back to union.

The mystery of Tait's latter years is how a player stagnating in Leeds' reserves could emerge as one of the heroes of the Lions in South Africa.

Tait's account of his relationship with the then Leeds coach, Dean Bell, goes some way towards answering that question. The only person he is less complimentary about is his Lions room-mate, Jeremy Guscott. "Looking back," he writes, "I really can't believe that I made such an effort to get onside with Mr High and Mighty Guscott. Maybe if he'd slogged it out at Featherstone on a wet Tuesday in December he might have been entitled to that sort of respect from me. All he really seemed concerned about... was whether I farted in my sleep."

The Memoirs and Sporting Life of Tom Mitchell (Echotime Inc, pounds 16) is the year's most engaging autobiography. The grand old eccentric of rugby league, who died in September, did not just have one good life story to tell; he had several and wove them into a quite extraordinary, if sometimes rambling, piece of work.

Leeds Rugby League Club compiled by Phil Caplan and Les Hoole (Tempus, pounds 9.99) is one of the Images of England series and a visually rewarding collection. It is worth getting down from the shelf for its cover, a quite wonderful sepia team group of the Leeds and New Zealand players who met at Headingley in 1907.

If that is basically an exercise in nostalgia, then Daring to Dream by Brian Lund (Reflections of a Bygone Age, pounds 6.95) is, despite the name of its publishers, an exploration of recent history, of fresh wounds and wrongs.

It is an account of the rise of the Keighley Cougars, a phenomenon not just of rugby league but of British sport in the way they went from moribund to vibrant in the early 90s.

Keighley were ultimately denied their place at the game's top table by the arrival of Super League. There is no attempt here to disguise the bitterness - nor should there be.

Their amateur neighbours, Keighley Albion, are the subject of Seasons to Remember by Don and Dave Kirkley (Empire Publications, pounds 6.95). No amateur rugby league club has had its history chronicled like this, although my recollections of the early 80s are that playing them - or any other side in Keighley - was a more frightening experience than emerges here.

Over the hill and in the big city, the Bradford Bulls have been innovators in many spheres of the game. Predictable, then, that they should be the first to publish a children's book based on their mascot - Bullman and the Mystery of the Missing Boots (Bradford Bulls, pounds 4.99).

I look forward to the sequels, Bullman and the Mystery of the Missing Super League Points and, just possibly, Bullman and the Mystery of the Missing Spectators.

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