Rugby League: Books for Christmas: Heretics roast old chestnuts: Dave Hadfield finds old battles still being disputed among the pages of this year's rugby league reading

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The Independent Online
THERE is little doubt which book the zealots of the traditional school of rugby league history will be roasting their chestnuts upon this year.

The Rugby League Myth by Michael Latham and Tom Mather (Mike RL Publications, pounds 8.99) is a prime candidate for book-burning because of the heretical frontal assault it makes on the game's assumptions about its origins.

In the course of researching a work that was intended to be about the minor clubs that split from the Union and, in most cases, died around the turn of the century, the authors unearthed evidence that the old chestnut about honest working men setting up their own game because the effete Southerners would not allow broken-time payments is just an attractive folk- tale.

The way they tell it, the breakaway clubs merely wanted more autonomy from their county unions and never intended to resign from the Rugby Union as such.

I predict that this version - part accident, part 'stuff you' pragmatism in the mould of football's Premier League - will never displace the heroic revolt model.

The histories of the largely doomed clubs which joined the split are fascinating, though, and full of contemporary resonances.

The first volume of Trevor Delaney's major work on the same subject, Rugby Disunion, is actually entitled Broken Time ( pounds 14.95, self- published). Although I have not had time for a detailed reading, it is clear that he sees such payments as a key issue, certainly in the events leading up to the split.

The sport's most successful book of the year must be When Push Comes to Shove (Yorkshire Arts Circus, pounds 9.95) and deservedly so.

This collection of atmospheric photographs and pungent anecdotes is the British game's first out- and-out coffee-table book.

For the first couple of months of dipping and browsing, I was inclined to regard it as an unmixed blessing; now the diet of unrelenting fundamentalist cloth-cappery has started to pall just a little. Don't try to convince any of this book's prime movers that the game owes its existence to a mistake, for heaven's sake.

The Stones Bitter Rugby League Yearbook (Hamlyn, pounds 9.99) is not only a very good read, it also produced by far the best pre-publication adventures. After being printed in Spain, it was loaded into a lorry to be driven to England, only for it to be intercepted by irate French farmers who thought that it could be a heavily disguised cargo of cut-price Spanish lamb.

I've checked my copy for the pitchfork marks that would authenticate this story, but there are no holes in the format. Expanded from its previous incarnation under the British Coal banner, it now includes a section on each club and a series of retrospectives on 10 memorable matches of last season, as well as the usual essays on each competition and each international aspect of the game.

The Rothmans Rugby League Yearbook (Headline, pounds 14.99) was not attacked by rioting French peasants, but its genesis this year must have been equally fraught with problems, if only because it chose to delve into one of the darkest recesses of the game.

As well as a timely section on South Africa, the authors tried, for the first time, to include dates of birth of all active - and some relatively inactive - players. This is the sort of information players have traditionally taken to the grave - or to Headingley - with them, but, in all but a few cases, the truth has been wheedled out.

If anyone can put a date to Alan Kimaingatau or Adrian Why of London Crusaders first seeing the light of day, the careful compilers, Raymond Fletcher and David Howes, are waiting for a postcard from you.

Garry Schofield (born 1 July 1965) has produced a yearbook of his own. It is his fortune and misfortune that Garry Schofield's Season's Diary 1992-93 (Pemtland Press, pounds 8.99) deals with what, in many ways, must have been the most frustrating season of his career.

It is as revealing as can reasonably be expected on the personality clashes that frequently make Leeds a more entertaining club off the field than on it, even if there is sometimes a hint of whitewash in the air.

It is tempting to describe Offiah: A Blaze of Glory by David Lawrenson (Methuen, pounds 12.99) as a quick read. Certainly, it makes little attempt to probe the psyche of a rather complicated person; Offiah reveals as much about himself as he chooses to, no more.

Still, the basic story is good enough to carry a book and Lawrenson's following of the trail to school in Suffolk and to early rugby union days in London is thorough and readable.

Elsewhere in the player biography section of the industry, it is the Australians who have kept the wheels turning. Three recent luminaries - Benny Elias, Michael O'Connor and Brett Kenny - tell their stories or have them told for them in Balmain Benny (Ironbark), The Best of Both Worlds by Bret Harris (Sun) and The Natural (Ironbark, all pounds 13.95 from Open Rugby).

Elias has the most scandal to recount, O'Connor throws light on the bitterness that can still follow a change of codes - his own father hardly spoke to him for years - and Kenny is full of good advice on being laid-back.

Sadly, the most intriguing biog of the lot - Thomas Keneally's on Des Hasler - appears to be out of print already. A reprint is being considered and it would be engrossing to see how a Booker Prize winning novelist - for Schindler's Ark in 1982, just as Hasler was starting out with Keneally's beloved Penrith - handles an often-derided literary form.