Christmas Books: History boys and a veteran still far from over the hill

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The Independent Online

In Peter Ustinov's play Romanoff and Juliet, an American matron wanders through the streets of an imaginary Eastern European capital and is given the line: "I adore history, it's so old."

Rugby union is not that old, but it certainly does have a history. True, it has been, more often than not, something of a troubled history, from the moment Rugby schoolboy William Webb Ellis allegedly picked up a football and ran with it in 1823.

There has been "shamateurism", broken time payments, clubs versus country and finally, professionalism - the ultimate source of angst.

Of late there has probably been even more change to cram into rugby's history. So it is pleasing to report that, in his excellent chronicle, A Game for Hooligans (Mainstream, £16.99), Huw Richards has managed to distil the very essence of rugby union history into this one volume.

He manages to include pretty well everything salient to the evolution of the game. He is never too judgemental, although his chapter headings might occasionally indicate his thoughts. "Journey Without Maps" for example, charts the game's navigation of the beginning of the professional era.

If there is one criticism, it is that he understates the influence that television, for good or evil, has had in the game's history.

There have been the copious amounts of cash that various broadcasters have flung at the game's administrators and they have then been empowered to break the habits, and in many cases the hearts, of generations of rugby spectators by dictating not merely kick-off times, but on what day matches are played.

A Saturday afternoon was pleasurably spent at the likes of Heywood Road, The Rec, Welford Road, Kingsholm, Edge Hall Road, The Stoop, Coundon Road, Old Deer Park, or the Memorial Ground, and there would then follow the finishing touch of a pint or three and a chat with the players.

Now, thanks in part to television there are Friday night matches, evening kick-offs on Saturdays and, heaven forfend, games on Sundays.

But while the much-maligned professional era is taking its time to sort itself out, Richards clearly believes the paid end of the sport is getting where it needs to be. His upbeat conclusion is that "rugby will continue to be played for money by a privileged few but for enjoyment by many more."

Everyone thought that Richard Hill, the Saracens and England flanker, was history when he ruptured the medial ligament in his left knee in the first Test between the British and Irish Lions and New Zealand in June 2005.

He had only just recovered from damaging the cruciate ligament in the same knee, an injury which had involved a year's rehabilitation.

This time around recovery was to take even longer, 18 months before this talismanic player could take the field in competitive rugby again. And after the second operation his surgeon told Hill that he had never before carried out two reconstructions on the same knee of an elite athlete who had then gone on to make a successful comeback.

That Hill did go on to make a bit of medico-sporting history, even scoring a try on his return to the Saracens first XV, is testament to his inner strength, although reading Richard Hill - The Autobiography (Orion Books, £18.99) reveals that even this iron man had his moments of doubt as he battled through the pain of the rehab and the worry of a mysterious infection which seemed to invade the whole of his body.

Hill's is a cracking story, and although he is still playing, he does at least have a tale to tell.

So does Mark Ring, the former Wales centre. As the dust jacket blurb rightly says, Ring was the glamour boy of Welsh rugby long before Gavin Henson had even been conceived.

Ring Master - The Incredible story of Welsh Rugby's Clown Prince by Mark Ring with Delme Parfitt (Mainstream, £15.99) is crammed with anecdote and the odd surprise, including the fact that Ring was a double Welsh international - his second sport was baseball.

He also played cricket and tells a remarkable tale of holding a steepling catch when in mid-pee on the boundary.This book is left field all the way through and well worth the read.

Other books: IRB World Rugby Yearbook (VSP, £16.99); A Century of the All Blacks in Britain and Ireland by Dave Fox, Ken Bogle and Mark Hoskins (Tempus, £19.99); Munster: Our Road to Glory (Penguin Ireland, £20); Rugby Facts, Figures and Funby Liam McCann (ff&f, £5.99).