Looking for some gift ideas for Christmas? There’s been a rich seam of rugby literature published this year, so here’s a whole bundle of books well worth forking out for
Best Rugby Books 2020
Star-name autobiographies perennially feature heavily in rugby publishing and there are some crackers this year. But there’s a feast of other material available: histories, critiques, hard men and the haka. You have the poignancy of serious injury and the purity of children’s adventures, real life and fiction side by side. Here are the best rugby books of 2020…
Joe Marler: Loose Head, published by Ebury Press
Just like a rugby ball, you never know which way you’ll bounce. So says the England prop whose colourful career is reflected in this rollicking book covering everything from rituals to red mist, nudity to nicknames. Ghostwriter Rachel Murphy unravels the complex character that is Marler, a player who twice retired from Test rugby and twice changed his mind.
Exe Men, published by Polaris
With immaculate timing comes the definitive history of Exeter Chiefs. Just how did they turn from cliquey meanderers in the mid-1980s to widely loved European champions in 2020? Rob Kitson boards the bus to guide us through their hightailed journey, providing fascinating biogs of key men like Tony Rowe and Rob Baxter. It won’t just be Chiefs fans who lap this up.
James Haskell: What a Flanker, published by HarperCollins
“There are a few basic rules to live by as a rugby player,” says the ex-England flanker. “Never trust a team-mate who doesn’t attend team socials, never trust a team-mate who doesn’t front up in a contact session, and never trust a man who showers with his pants on.” Lots of laughs amid the serious stuff from a player who could never be accused of being vanilla.
Read a full review of What a Flanker here.
Our Blood is Green, published by Polaris
The latest instalment from Polaris’s hugely popular history series on international teams. This tells the story of the Springboks in their own words – “We represent something much bigger than we can imagine,” says current captain Siya Kolisi. Dedicated to the late James Small, who was interviewed for the book, and to South African players across the decades.
James Hook: Kick-Off, published by Polaris
Welsh international James Hook, a father of three, turns his hand to children’s fiction with terrific effect. His debut novel follows a season in the life of primary school youngster Jimmy Joseph and his rugby-mad friends. Be prepared for some villainous behaviour – but will Jimmy overcome such obstacles as he chases his dream? Book one of a series.
Rob Kearney: No Hiding, published by Reach Sport
A fascinating portrait of one of Irish rugby’s most decorated players – the full-back won two Grand Slams with Ireland, four Heineken European Cups with Leinster and toured twice with the Lions. Kearney’s career didn’t always run smoothly as ghostwriter David Walsh relates. A powerful autobiography that provides insights into the man behind the legend.
Dylan Hartley: The Hurt, published by Viking
There will be plenty of memoirs to come that focus on the physical and psychological demands on Test players – but few as beautifully written as Hartley’s collaboration with Michael Calvin. The ex-England captain’s autobiography shows us the sport warts and all. “Rugby is great for the soul but terrible for the body,” says the 97-times capped hooker.
Read a full review of The Hurt here.
Hard Men of Rugby, published by Y Lolfa
Colin Meads or Bakkies Botha? Jerry Collins or Bobby Windsor? Luke Upton brings a favourite pub discussion to print as he tells the stories behind some of the hardest men to play our sport. Twenty worthy players are profiled although not the man whom referee Nigel Owens, who provides the foreword, says was the hardest of them all… Richie McCaw.
Ken Scotland: The Autobiography, published by Polaris
Reminders of a bygone age – when Ken Scotland was in the Army, a pie and pint in the NAFFI cost seven and a half pence! The full-back cum stand-off is a top-rank Hall of Famer, starring for Scotland and the 1959 Lions, and at 84 has finally decided to shed light on his wondrous career. He shows the same delicate touch as he did on the field all those decades ago.
A Break in Mendoza, published by The Endless Bookcase
An inspirational read from a smaller independent publisher. Carl Igolen-Robinson tells the harrowing story of his son Luke, who broke his neck while playing in a school match in faraway Argentina. The book charts a year in Luke’s life as he tries to put his life back together. All royalties from sales go to the RFU Injured Players Foundation.
Sean O’Brien: Fuel, published by Sandycove
From Bog Lane to Brentford. Seán O’Brien explains his journey from rural County Carlow to big-city life with London Irish, along the way becoming an iconic hard man for Leinster and Ireland. And his Lions try in the first Test of 2017 is one for the ages. Funny to think that if Gaelic football was a professional sport he might never have bothered with rugby…
Facing the Haka, published by Allen & Unwin NZ
Many love it, some despise it – the haka always gets people animated. This beautifully presented book, published in partnership with NZ Rugby, explains one of sport’s most famous rituals from the perspective of those who have performed it or stared it down. “It’s an amazing experience,” says Manu Tuilagi. “It gets you pumped up watching them do it.”
Rory Best: My Autobiography, published by Hodder & Stoughton
The “shy, fat lad” come good. Rory Best didn’t get the fairytale ending to his Ireland career that he sought at Japan 2019 but what a contribution – 124 caps, 38 of them as captain, across 14 largely successful years. His gripping autobiography was one of 2020’s earlier offerings and charts the chequered fortunes of a player who quit the booze to become an Irish great.
Read a full review of Rory Best’s book here.
Mud, Maul, Mascara, published by Unbound
As the women’s game grows in standards and profile, a happy byproduct is books such as this. Catherine Spencer, who captained England to three Six Nations titles, talks about the glory years and the mental struggles she faced both as an elite athlete and a woman living an everyday life. There are a few shots fired in the RFU’s direction too.
Saving Rugby Union, published by Y Lolfa
Why did they change our game?, The Sorry Saga of the Crooked Scrum Feed and Farewell, Common Sense – three of the chapter headings that tell you where this book is going. Ross Reyburn delivers a damning verdict on the way rugby union has been run in the professional era and details the issues he believes require urgent solutions.
Running the Race, published by Christian Focus
A biography of the Scotland wing famous for winning gold at the 1924 Olympics. A Christian missionary, Eric Liddell chose to run in the 400m instead of the 100m so he didn’t have to run on a Sunday. Author John W Keddie was an adviser on the epic film Chariots of Fire and his book delves into Liddell’s sporting achievements and the faith that pushed him to excel.
Rugby Behind Barbed Wire, published by Amberley
Fifty years on, Chris Schoeman explores the Springboks’ controversial 1969-70 tour of Britain and Ireland. Played to a backdrop of heightened political tension because of apartheid, the tourists were besieged amid a series of violent demonstrations. Smoke bombs and flour bombs were a regular match-day occurrence. Many of those involved are interviewed.
Puddings, Bullies & Squashes, published by Sunnyrest Books
Britain is where its two principal football codes were given shape and discipline. The cradle for this was the 19th century public schools and Malcolm Tozer tells the story of 20 of those schools and their versions of the game. The book conveys the variety of those early codes before the nationalisation of the game by the FA from 1863 and the RFU from 1871.
A Few Wise Words, published by Amersham
Not a rugby book but included here because of a contribution from Sir Clive Woodward. Compiled by Peter Mukherjee, it features 22 stories of success and inspirational advice by the likes of Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley and Sir Ben Ainslie. “I never lose – I either win or I learn,” says ex-England coach Woodward in a volume as apt as ever during uncertain times.
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