Healey's tongue-lashings glitter with humour and honesty

Books for Christmas: Rugby Union
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The Independent Online

He does tend to shoot from the lip, but the England wing and Leicester scrum-half rarely misses the target and it has to be said that his ghosted (will he never learn?) biography The Austin Healey Story – Me and My Mouth (Greenwater Publishing, £17.99) is a hoot.

Healey has a natural wit and that comes screaming through the sharply written text. It is a refreshing change to have something to read other than a list of "games wot I have played in". There is one inadvertent error, which on reflection might well be regarded as a case of dramatic irony.

Healey confesses to being the last pupil to receive the strap at his school, St Anselm's, "before," as he writes, "corporate punishment was banned." He certainly suffered corporate punishment after the Lions tour when he was fined £2,000 for his much publicised ghosted column which labelled the Australian lock Justin Harrison a "plank" and an "ape".

Notwithstanding this malapropism, this marvellously entertaining book glitters harshly with honesty throughout, and no one, not even the author is spared, where and when they are deserving of a tongue-lashing. There is little reason to question that what he writes actually happened, and if it did not, no doubt he will accept the consequences.

So on reading Healey's version of the disciplinary hearing one is left in little doubt that it was the nearest thing to a kangaroo court. You find yourself nodding when, at the end of it and he is leaving Dublin, he concludes: "They wanted a scapegoat and I was munching mountain grass all the way home."

So rarely are sporting biographies this readable. Too often their so-called professionalism means grown men are prohibited from expressing an opinion on anything to do with their sport, unless it is in praise of it. Governing bodies apparently are perfect in all they do, including slapping a gag on their charges, lest the truth will out. Bravo Healey and his "ghost", Alex Spink, for contributing something meaningful to sporting literature.

It has to be said, though, that Graham Henry, while being incensed at Healey's column and with the other miscreant of the tour, Matt Dawson, for his critical diary, is still generous about the pair as players, even if he feels that these men are boys in the world of the media as he reveals in his offering, Henry's Pride (Mainstream Publishing, £15.99), written in conjunction with Nick Bishop. This is not a book that sits easily on the sporting bookshelves, being little more than a ghosted, if lengthier and retrospective, column that does criticise.

How can Henry condemn the tired and clichéd practice of ghosted pieces then turn around and stick his own thoughts on paper in the aftermath? The intercessionary Nick's Tour Diary seems suspiciously like an opportunity to show off that writer's descriptive skills, which are not that hot. It is Henry's thoughts and words which hold the reader's interest, anything else is an unnecessary distraction. A curate's egg of a book.

Rugby does seem to have had a decent crop of good books this year and well to the fore of that particular parade is Raising the Dragon – A Clarion Call to Welsh Rugby (Virgin, £17.99) by Robert Jones with Huw Richards.

Jones, the former Wales scrum-half, gives it the full Monty, using his own life as background for introducing up-to-the-minute topics. He may wear his heart on his sleeve, but by golly he sets out some cogent arguments.

Graham Henry may have bridled at Matt Dawson's criticism, but what Jones reveals about him is likely to render the New Zealander apoplectic. Among other things Jones makes public is the fact that Henry decided to charge £2,000 to appear on a panel discussing the past, present and future of Welsh rugby in aid of former international Paul Arnold's testimonial year. The other three panellists J P R Williams, Ieuan Evans and Jones appeared gratis. Jones reminds the reader that Henry earns £250,000 per year.

The thrust of Jones book, though, is not gratuitous sniping at the present regime. He talks of his life, what rugby has meant to him and what it means to the nation. He fears for the future and concludes that he has written the book in the hope that the game can be rescued in Wales. It is extremely well written, beautifully structured and actually seeks to make a point about the game rather than merely a few quid.

Referees are rarely seen in print. Again, the policy of the authoritarian gag zips their lips tighter than a player's agent's wallet. But when a referee retires he can become far from retiring. This is the case with Derek Bevan – yes another Welshman – one of the most respected and best officials to have put lips to whistle.

He only became a ref after the world came down on him – he suffered a serious injury to his back after being caught in a fall of coal while working down a mine. And he admits in The Man in the Middle (Seren, £14.95) that he hated referees and had been sent off a couple of times as a flanker playing for his club the Vardre.

It is another quality offering, not unlike Allan Bateman's There and Back Again (Mainstream Publishing, £14.99). Again the subject writes without fear or favour and Bateman, having played at the top in league and union, has a lot of sensible points to make and also lets slip a few inside tales. He also reckons he cannot kick out of hand, that his passing is limited and that his ball skills are average, but that can only be when he is playing with the gods of rugby. At least mere mortals can enjoy a good read with Bateman.

And if you feel there are too many words floating around about the game, how about a pictorial history of Bristol Football Club (Tempus, £10.99) it is the latest volume in the Images of Sport series and takes the reader from 1945 to the present. If a picture paints a thousand words then give the eye a treat and savour the 130,000-plus words in this one.

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