Last month, I wrote about some of the best rugby union biographies I have read, and concluded two things: i) that in general, the better the player, the less enjoyable the book; and ii) that former England hooker Brian Moore’s Beware of The Dog was possibly the best rugby autobiography I had read.
It got me thinking: was that really the best one?
(By the way, I’m not saying Brian Moore wasn’t a good player! He was a very good, highly effective player who knew how to win. You just wouldn’t say he has the same range of skills as, say, Gareth Edwards, Mark Ella, Jonathan Davies, David Campese, Michael Jones, Brian O’Driscoll or Dan Carter.)
Suddenly I wasn’t so sure about the Moore book. Was it the best of all rugby union biographies? Perhaps it was simply one of the better recent ones I had read. I had to have a rethink.
Besides, there are a few genres to be considered:
- straight autobiographies (written by the subject himself as well as ghost-written ones),
- biographies (authorised or otherwise),
- books on specific themes (British Lions tours, Grand Slam seasons, wartime rugby players),
- books on the game itself (history, future of the sport, evolution of the game, laws of the game).
So if I were to compile the Top 10 (or whatever number) rugby union books I had read, they would need to be separated into those categories.
I thought I would start with the easiest one, simply because it is the biggest category: biographies/autobiographies.
What’s not on the list
In culling my list of 10 best rugby union biographies, I first of all put aside books written by great players I know more as coaches. While they were great players in their time, I have known them only as coaches.
So books by Ian McGeechan, Alex Wyllie and Jim Telfer would belong to a list of best rugby union books written by coaches. Also included would be more recent ones by Robbie Deans, John Mitchell and Warren Gatland. I did see them playing but history will note them as being possibly better coaches than players. I will compile my list of best rugby union books by coaches in a future article.
So on to the rugby union biographies by players.
I generally don’t bother reading books on players still playing (their story is not done). So I have skipped books by David Pocock, George North and Sonny Bill Williams, Billy Vunipola, among others.
While I have read many rugby biographies, probably more than the average fan, certain players have annoyed me or seem so uninteresting that I have never bothered reading books on their lives and careers.
Top of that list would be Austin Healey and his Me and My Mouth, while others would include books by Matt Dawson, Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins and Ali Williams.
With some others, I sort of know what I will get and so have never felt like reading their books. These include Paul O’Connell, John Smit, Victor Matfield, Jason Robinson, Percy Montgomery, Chester Williams and Bryan Habana.
(It’s not some anti-South African thing, in case you’re wondering. I would definitely read Schalk Burger’s rugby union autobiography when he stops playing. Or those of the Du Plessis brothers. And I look forward to Bakkies Botha’s book if he ever does come up with one when he retires – I won’t read the one that came out while he was still playing.)
And there are some other rugby union biographies — some already on my shelf, some yet to be procured — I have been meaning to read. Rugby union autobiography books by Will Greenwood, Josh Lewsey, Richard Hill, and Simon Halliday’s Centre of Excellence; as well as books by true legends such as Willie John McBride, JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Dan Carter and Jonny Wilkinson.
And then there is the rugby autobiography of former Springbok flanker Rob Louw, if anyone can tell me where to find it.
Some books that didn’t make my 10 Rugby Union Biographies, though I had enjoyed reading them, include some of the earliest ones I’d read.
The very first was the rugby autobiography of former England and British Lions prop Mike Burton, who gained infamy for being the first England player to be sent off (against Australia in 1975). Never Stay Down was a great read about a player who was undoubtedly one of the characters of the sport (“I played most of my rugby under the laws of the jungle”), and who later made it big in corporate hospitality at rugby matches, as well as in sports travel and player representation.
Other early reads included books on Fran Cotton, Bill Beaumont and Gordon Brown.
Good though they were, none of them made my top 10.
The top 10 all had a lasting impact on me, either through the quality of writing or the thoughts and opinions offered by the subject of the book. Many opened my eyes to issues around the game I never knew, and some were just a joy to read.
As a last note on my Top 10 favourite rugby union biographies, I would like to cite some honourable mentions:
- Mexted: Pieces of Eight – Murray Mexted (1986): Before becoming a commentator well-known for his insights but also for his share of on-air gaffes, Mexted was a stylish and athletic number 8 who played in the formidable 1980s All Blacks teams pre-Wayne Shelford.
- It’s In the Blood: My Life – Lawrence Dallaglio (2008): Entertaining biography of the outstanding backrow forward and serial winner, the only man to have played in winning World Cup finals in both 7s and 15s.
- Blindsided – Michael Lynagh (2015): A reflection on the legendary Australian flyhalf/centre’s life in rugby and rugby commentary, but also on his close shave with a stroke.
- Nick Farr-Jones: The Authorised Biography (1996) and John Eales: The Biography (2001): Both of these were written by Peter Fitzsimons, who brought his folksy, entertaining style to the life stories of two of Australia’s greatest players, who were also their two World Cup-winning captains.
- Heart and Sole: A Rugby Life – David Sole (1993): Captain of Scotland when they had their most famous victory in 1990, beating hot favourites England, who were chasing the Grand Slam, to win the Grand Slam themselves. Came up with the idea for that famous slow walk onto the field before the match. Small for a prop but very powerful and mobile, Sole was part of the victorious 1989 British Lions team in Australia.
- On the Loose – Josh Kronfeld (1999): The prime beneficiary of Jonah Lomu’s rampages around the field, as he was usually at his shoulder to snare up the final pass to score a try. A bit of a free spirit, and was a surfer and teacher. He was also the man who said, when Richie McCaw won selection for the end-of-year All Blacks tour despite playing only one season of provincial rugby and a few minutes of Super rugby: “You might as well just give All Black jerseys to everybody.”
Read Part One of My Top 10 rugby union biographies here.