Rugger's Book Review
by Wes Clark
Sometimes it's surprising what you get when you type "rugby" into a library's holdings computer. I expected how-to's, which I got, but there's also such a thing as rugby fiction. We'll look at two novels and an instruction book. I have it good authority that some forwards can actually read, so perhaps I'm not entirely wasting my time...
Falling Into Glory by Robert Westall; Ferrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993, 310p
After reading this I was a little surprised to find it in the Young Readers section. It's by a British author, and is sort of a combination of Tom Brown's School Days and The Summer of '42. It tells the story of a fat, homely young lad named Atkinson ("Akker") who endures an early childhood of taunts and scorn, only to develop into an oversized muscular teen who discovers salvation and glory as an intimidating forward in a school rugby side. An instinctive practitioner of sports psychology, he discovers his rough features - which he augments with rough play - to be an asset in the game. Along the way he also wows professors with his knowledge of Roman fortifications, lusts after a teacher, wins her, establishes a more normal relationship with a girl his own age and achieves academic excellence, a successful moral test and revenge upon his headmaster upon graduation. Not bad, kid.
There is also a memorable passage about the youthful Akker's play with some hungover Old Boys and (gasp!) rugby league players, which brings him into disrepute. Frankly, I don't fully understand the social implications between rugby league and union in England, but, like many other tales of British life, this novel has pithy observations about class and social distinctions. An easy (even for a prop), excellent read and probably available in your local library system, where I got my copy.
Caveman Politics by Jay Atkinson; Breakaway books, 1998, 303 p
This novel is a blend of race relations, sex, a murder mystery, an analysis of male behavior, and rugby in a Florida setting. Much more of an adult orientation that the previous book (I'll get to the adult stuff in a minute). It's the story of a young journalist/rugger named Joe Dolan who becomes a sort of detective, uh, well, you see a teammate is accused of murder and he, uh, okay - I admit it! I haven't actually read this book! I just sort of skimmed through it in the space of an hour or so while on vacation!
What I did come across, however, were a couple of interesting passages in what looked like a readable work. Since the author is himself a rugger (he plays hooker for a Florida club) the rugby passages seem especially authentic. A few observations stand out; he describes the mental preparation for a rugby match as being more like a preparation for combat rather than the recreational attitudes golfers or tennis players would have, which brings a certain grimness to the play that is unique to the game. I myself have noticed this, even on the practice pitch. (One fellow in my club, during a practice game, was unaware he was paraphrasing a Union Army diarist speaking about charging Rebs during the Civil War: "Don't be afraid of them - they're only guys like us.")
Another observation of the author's is that a rugger's admitting to an interest in opera to a teammate is akin to death itself, or at the very least a major irretrievable loss in rugger credibility. I report this since I recently had a chat with another fellow in my club - who shall remain unnamed - about opera. He admitted liking Italian opera. Hey, we're all Nineties guys here, right? Ahem.
So you don't feel cheated, here's Booklist's review of Caveman Politics: "Atkinson piles on events and characters of depth and substance until the reader appreciates the antic cast and the imperfect world they crash through. . . . Joe Dolan's journey is made even more memorable by wonderful encounters with some heroically deranged people."
The "heroically deranged people" and "antic cast" are what make this a rugby novel, of course. What Booklist failed to mention is the explicit sex scene that practically jumped off the page at me, but since rugby is a family sport (or so I've been telling my wife) and this is a family medium I'll not elaborate. Read it yourself.
Rugby: A Player's Guide to the Laws, by Derek Robinson; CollinsWillow, 1996, 192 p.
Approved by the RFU and based on 1996 laws (I presume there's an update), this book stands out in sports literature not only because it is informative but because it is so humorously written and so much fun to read. In fact, I'm guessing it may be unique. Don't expect to learn the game from it, however. As a new player I can attest that rugby must be played to be understood, not explained. (And even then it still looks like utter chaos. In fact, in Caveman Politics the author notes that the ebb and flow of mayhem and violence in a match only really makes perfect sense to experienced players, not mere spectators.)
There are chapters on scrums, line-outs, rucks, mauls, etc., each with line drawings and diagrams of play. As an added touch there are funny comments from international correspondents about the laws to which the author responds. Example: L.R.N. of Johannesburg writes, "What's so terrible hoisting in the line-out?" The author responds: "Why stop at hoisting? Why not let players stand on each other's shoulders? (According to the 1996 rules in the edition I read, hoisting is disallowed, "The only assistance you're allowed is from your own puny legs." Apparently an update is required.)
The rules regarding being offside are also thoroughly explained in every situation: free play, scrums, line-outs, rucks and mauls. Remembering them is another matter.
Sometimes Robinson hits the literary nail right on the head. Here's his description of a scrum: "If all this makes the front row of a scrum sound as balanced and sober as a Baptist missionary reunion, that is unfortunate, because it doesn't work out that way. Veins bulge, joints crack, discs slip, strange animal noises are heard, and - to paraphrase Dylan Thomas - steam comes gushing out of their nostrils. Considerable heaving and grinding take place."
Another funny observation is "Players always say 'sir' to the ref when they're on dodgy ground."
Playing advantage also benefits from Robinson's viewpoint: "One of the biggest idiots in rugby is the player who keeps reminding the referee when something has gone wrong. He thinks he sees a knock-on, so he shouts 'Knock-on!' This is stupid, because: 1) the referee, being human, resents being told what to do, and 2) he's playing advantage and trying not to stop the game, while this pessimist has never heard of advantage and spends his afternoon looking for reasons to stop the game."
This one is also recommended, of course.
For yet another book review, this one about Alive, click here.