Rugby League: Unspeakable machinations vie with outspoken players

Books For Christmas Rugby League
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The Independent Online
A LITTLE LIKE the game itself, it has been a year of triumph and disaster in the world of rugby league publishing. Without a doubt, the major achievement is Mike Rylance's The Forbidden Game: The Untold Story of French Rugby League (League Publications, pounds 16.99), a searing account of how an unholy alliance of rugby union partisans and collaborationist politicians combined to ban the game during the war.

Still on the theme of discredited regimes, The Central Park Years by Dave Swanton (published by the club at pounds 14.99) has a genuine stab at explaining the blunders and machinations that led to Wigan leaving one of the two most famous grounds in the game this year. Considering that this is an official publication, that turbulent time is described with remarkable even-handedness. Primarily, though, this is a celebration of the great players and great games that the old ground witnessed.

Swanton's choice of the 90 greatest players to appear there for Wigan is a good argument-starter - what, no Steve Ella? - and, apart from inventing a wholly fictitious rugby union past for Graeme West, who must have been in the building as it was written, it forms a vivid and valuable compendium. We can only assume that an agent of the Vichy government got at the proofs.

The other legendary home of rugby league is still very much a going concern and Headingley Voices by Phil Caplan (Tempus, pounds 9.99) is a series of memories of the place seen through the experiences of supporters. As usual from this publisher, the illustrations are outstandingly good.

Despite the best efforts of David Storey and Tom Keneally, novels which use rugby league as their setting are comparatively rare. One Winter by Geoff Lee (Parrs Wood Press, pounds 7.99) adds to their number to some extent. Although there is a classic cover shot of a try being scored at Leigh, however, the game remains largely confined to the background of this tale of "Romance, Rock 'n' Roll and Rugby League in the Swinging Sixties". It certainly adds to the richness of the texture of a yarn which lives up to its description as vivid and humorous. Could have done with a few more scrums, though.

It has been a year of two notably outspoken player biographies. John Bentley's My Story with Neil Squires (Andre Deutsch, pounds 16.99) tipped the bucket on all and sundry, but most memorably on Garry Schofield, Ellery Hanley, Maurice Lindsay and Rob Andrew - not a bad line-up. For uncomfortable candour, he is outdone only by Matthew Ridge, who has collaborated - no wartime reference intended - with Angus Gillies in Take No Prisoners (Hodder Moa Beckett, pounds 19.95 from Sportspages). Magnificent full-back as he has been, Ridge has long also been the exception to the generalisation that all Kiwi rugby league players are pretty easy to get along with. His old coach at Auckland, John Monie, gets the most extensive working-over here, although there are plenty of other victims of his abundant supply of bile. It is conventional in the case of troubled offspring to blame the parents and it appears from Ridge's account of his upbringing that his mother - a militant lesbian - has a bit to answer for.

Alongside these two, Reilly - A Life in Rugby League (Mainstream, pounds 9.99) is a model of dignity and restraint, although I'd back Malcolm in a fight against the pair of them. This is an update of the book already published in Australia, expanded to take in his season back in England with Huddersfield. That chapter is not the most joyous section of his memoirs.

The biggest book of the year, by far, is Stephen M Wilde's monumental The Lions of Swinton (self-published, pounds 22.50), recording every cough and hiccup in the long history of that now sadly reduced club. At least they are still with us, which was, until recently, more than seemed likely to be said for the Sheffield Eagles. Images of Sport - Sheffield Eagles by John Cornwall (Tempus, pounds 9.99) was destined to be an obituary, but now that a new club has risen from the ashes it becomes merely the story so far.

From the same stable - suddenly the most active publisher of rugby league books - Halifax Rugby League - The First 100 Years by Andrew Hardcastle is a delightful collection of photographs that ends with the afros and big sideburns of 1974. Quite right, too; as Swinton will testify, there is not much of significance that has happened since then.

Les Hoole's Hunslet Rugby League Club (Tempus, pounds 9.99) in the same series ends even earlier; on the day that the old club left its Parkside ground in 1973. The photo of that occasion is particularly poignant, with the players lined up against a symbolically delapidated pavilion. Still, they went on to prove - not least by winning the Northern Ford Premiership last season - that there is life after death. For Sheffield, too, it is to be hoped.

Now to the major disaster. For 19 years, we have been describing the Rothmans Rugby League Yearbook as "essential" and "indispensable". Well, now we'll find out whether it really is - or was. In a truly dreadful piece of news for the game, sending out as it does all the worst signals, Rothmans has pulled the plug on the code's essential, indispensable etc, etc, reference work. It is a bit like the New Testament being taken out of print. The hope is that someone will step into the breach to replace it, just as Rothmans did, after a few years' gap, with the old John Player yearbooks. But, unless events move at an unprecedented pace, it will not happen this year.

The likeliest candidates to pick up the baton would be League Publications, whose empire already encompasses two weeklies, a monthly and their own yearbook, Rugby League 1999-2000 (pounds 12.99). It has never set out to rival Rothmans, but perhaps the biggest service the organisation could do the game now would be to revamp it as the rugby league Bible for the new millennium.