Christmas books: On the prowl with Lions through the ages from Bronte country to darkest New Zealand

Unable to confront the pain of last summer's tour yet? David Llewellyn finds comfort in lives and legends of yesteryear
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The Independent Online

The literature on rugby union this year is all Lions, legends and leaders. Naturally the four home unions' tour of New Zealand is to the fore.

Thankfully, there is only one "inside story" of the latest Lions tour - and it is a heavily backed one, in that there are 21 pages of advertising within its 160 pages, not to mention the endorsement of the front cover by a prominent British brewer.

It is comprehensive, and from a New Zealander's point of view makes for great reading, but it is doubtful whether any Lions fan would be drawn to this volume until time has dulled the pain of humiliation.

Still, Blacked Out: The Inside Story of the Lions in New Zealand by Mick Cleary (Mainstream, £18.99) at least provides a record of the débâcle. The price is a bit steep, especially in light of the advertising it contains.

A better book is the same publisher's The History of the British and Irish Lions by Clem Thomas, updated by Greg Thomas (Mainstream, £7.99). This is far better value, Thomas Jnr keeping his old man's work going. Once again we have a thoroughly comprehensive statistical section and a sound piece of commentary.

Mainstream do not stop there. They have reprinted in paperback Lions of Wales by Peter Jackson (£7.99) and Lions of Ireland by David Walmsley (£7.99), the former a more rounded work, loaded with anecdotes, the latter more strait-laced and lacking in humour, as it was first time around.

But the best offering by far of this "Pride of Lions" literature is Jackson's witty and informative Lions of England (Mainstream, £16.99).

From the prologue, where the author - a hugely well-organised man professionally - reveals himself to be a dunderhead as far as having a sense of direction goes, and a victim of the dreaded speed cameras, to the index Jackson entertains and informs. The reader is given lessons in history and geography as well as a celebration of a select band of English rugby heroes. The journey winds from Norway to north Wales, from Heckmondwike to Small Heath and from Bath to Barking.

Of course, the list selected by Jackson is purely subjective, but he has chosen well. He has a tale to tell about every player and there is plenty of room for a giggle as the anecdotes jostle with playing achievements for space on the 304 pages. There is a buoyancy to the writing. Jackson may have flogged all over the place in his researches and may well have fallen foul of the law, but the mood and pace of the narrative do not reflect any of that. Rather he accentuates the positives and strives throughout to produce a little known gem about this or that player or their place of birth.

So you learn that in addition to the Bronte sisters in the Heckmondwike area there was another literary figure - Roger Hargreaves, author of the Mr Men books. You find out that Clive Woodward, a teenaged pupil at HMS Conway, a boarding school on Anglesey, was rejected for Welsh Schools after impressing in a trial match, and that John Pullin, the peerless Bristol hooker, felt lucky to be selected for England ahead of Northampton's Andy Johnson.

This book is crammed with information. It is fun to read and, given that it contains just 20 players out of a list of 99 English Lions, there is plenty of scope for a second and even a third volume - once Jackson has got his speeding endorsements off his driving licence.

If Jackson has set a benchmark for this style of book, then John Scally's Legends of Irish Rugby (Mainstream, £15.99) runs it close. They are all there and again wittily presented and sensitively portrayed.

One of them, Brian O'Driscoll, has penned a diary - A Year in the Centre (Penguin Ireland, £18.99). His year embraced the Lions tour, which was to have been the triumphant climax to the book, but in the end merely provided the newspapers with further fuel for the conflagration sparked by the infamous spear tackle on O'Driscoll in the first Test. But, Lions and spear tackles apart, there is plenty more in this book of greater interest, although O'Driscoll is fairly secretive about his private life.

Jim Telfer has never been one to seek attention. But he has assumed legendary status for his monumental achievements in the game. As a Scotland player, Scotland coach, Lions coach and as the first director of rugby for the Scottish Rugby Union, all he ever did was let his actions speak volumes.

It is about time this shepherd's son laid it all on the line. Looking Back... For Once by Jim Telfer with David Ferguson (Mainstream, £15.99) is the closest anyone other than his immediate family are ever going to get to the great man. And it is pretty close. His thoughts, philosophy, feelings and knowledge all make for a good read.

Two further legends also had their life stories reprinted. Willie John McBride's The Story of My Life (Portrait, £8.99) reappears, and Mervyn Davies has also made it into paperback with In Strength and Shadow (Mainstream, £7.99). One of the more intriguing books to surface in the last year, though, was a small hardback volume accessibly priced at £9.99 - How We Beat The All Blacks - The 1971 Lions Speak, edited by John Reason (Aurum).

It is a gem. Reissued, but a gem. Reason, the former Sunday Telegraph rugby correspondent, got eight of the players to talk technical and the coach Carwyn James wound up the exercise with a superb analysis of the opposition, and how the Lions countered it.