Today's Runners And Writers: The Six Shortlisted For The William Hill Sports Book Of The Year

WINTER COLOURS BY DONALD McRAE (MAINSTREAM PUBLISHING, pounds 16.99)

TAKE A holiday. On your own. A week. Make sure there are no phones, no fools, no TV sets. No distractions of any sort. Ditch the sunblock and bucket and spade. There will be be no time for any of those frivolities.

If you wear glasses or contact lenses bring along a spare pair, because the chances are they will be worn out by your most important item of luggage - Donald McRae's Winter Colours - Changing Seasons in World Rugby.

This grand oeuvre is the best book on rugby to hit the shelves since Stephen Jones' Endless Winter.

What is perhaps most endearing about this intensely written work is that it can irritate as well as stimulate. McRae, who won the William Hill Award in 1996, spent a year rubbing shoulders with the world's heroic rugby figures. Not just rubbing shoulders, but providing his own for them to cry on. He achieves levels of intimacy that elude many others.

The autobiographical passages covering his early life as a liberal white youth in racist-ravaged South Africa reveals someone torn desperately between his love for sport and his country, and the contempt in which he holds the hardline Boers. The Afrikaaners, traditional butts of liberal humour, turn into heroes when they pull on the green and gold. But throughout the account of his early life in the Republic there is the underlying impression that McRae and his friends wanted to be accepted by the Boetjies (little farmers).

And ultimately, as the odyssey through Tests and Super 12 rugby around the globe unfolds, there is the unshakeable impression that McRae has resolved the dilemma of his personal conflict. He can, and does, straddle the horns of hero worship and contempt, albeit from afar.

The vehicle of this epic is the charismatic Springbok wing James Small, who emerges as sympathetic, with (amazingly) a sense of humour and depth of feeling, certainly not evident when he sports the green and gold.

Mr McRae has written another winner, whatever the judges decide.

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