From a fallible Pope to the original All Black

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

Brent Pope: If You Really Knew Me(Irish Sports Publishing) Many people would claim to know Brent Pope basing their opinion on the RTÉ personality; a big, avuncular Kiwi, a former rugby player and coach with a twinkle in his eye and a long-suffering and at times exasperated sidekick to George Hook. They might be aware that he is a published author of children’s books – he did the illustrations too – which feature the character Woody the Whale, the proceeds of which were dispersed to a variety of children’s charities.

What many will not know until they read his autobiography is that in 2009 he was diagnosed as having a dysthymic personality, a state of chronic discontentment. It was then he began to understand the mood swings, self-doubt, insecurities, low self-esteem that permeated relationships and ordered his view on how he approached life.

The teak-tough veneer that Pope presented to the world was at odds with the chronic anxiety that lurked within. His courageous honesty makes the book atypical of its genre. There are plenty of laddish antics recounted from his playing and coaching days coupled with a certain poetic licence for some revisionism in describing matches and events.

What it ultimately reveals though is his personality, faults included – the kind of bloke who is excellent company with a sharp sense of fun – and it’s all the better for that.

John Hayes: The Bull, My Story(Simon Schuster) If there was a straw poll conducted to determine who amongst Ireland’s rugby players of the last 20 years would be least likely to write an autobiography, John Hayes would have been a runaway winner. It is precisely for this reason that the book he has penned in conjunction with Tommy Conlon has piqued the interest.

The Bull was a reluctant interviewee during his time with Munster and Ireland simply because he abhorred the spotlight, uncomfortable in its glare. It was partially attributable to shyness but also a belief that he was a small cog in a big wheel. He was mistaken in that respect as his celebrated career with Bruff, Shannon, Marist, Munster, Ireland and the Lions so vividly illustrated. His reaction to a song that Luke Bloom wrote about him and sang for the Ireland squad sums up his discomfort with being centre of attention.

Team-mates, friends and family got to see another side to his personality, one that included a sharp sense of humour and a dry wit. He was well able to trade in the dressing-room banter. Conlon captures Hayes’s self-deprecating tone faithfully as he unfurls a sporting story that gathers momentum when circumstance and opportunity collided to steer him as an 18-year-old to a rugby pitch in Bruff.

The book is an unembroidered, nicely captured insight into one of Irish rugby’s iconic players. Now he really will hate that label.

Behind the Lions. Playing Rugby for the British & Irish Lions(Birlinn Limited, Polaris Publishing) Many books have been written about the British Irish Lions either as a compendium of all tours or else alighting on a particular one but this offering from journalists Tom English, Nick Cain, David Barnes and Stephen Jones – an Irishman, an Englishman, a Scot and a Welshman – is comfortably the most interesting and entertaining.

They may have borrowed a line here and there from other source material, the odd autobiography or 10 and the excellent History of the Lions by Clem Thomas and his son, Greg, the current communications manager who will travel on next year’s tour to Australia, but the majority of the tome is derived from interviews, letters home from tour participants and newspaper clippings.

One classic example centres on the musings of Ireland’s Alex Foster who toured South Africa in 1910 and his appraisal of the unfamiliar hard grounds. “First many South African grounds were so hard that our list of casualties was always heavy. Elbows and knees were skinned in spite of elbow guards and reinforced kneecaps; you were lucky if the wounds did not fester. Eric Milroy, who joined us late, contracted dangerous poisoning from gravel rash. I would strongly urge all touring teams to travel accompanied by a medical man.”

For those with a love of rugby or sport in general, an interest in travel, or a curiosity for history, this book will satisfy all those needs with lavishly descriptive and often humorous anecdotes.

Dave Gallaher. The Original All Black Captain(HarperCollins Publishers) Born in the village of Ramelton, five miles outside Letterkenny in Donegal, where the rugby and GAA shared grounds now bear his name, Dave Gallaher left Ireland in the company of his family as a five-year-old child in 1878 to escape economic misery and the promise of a better life in New Zealand.

Gallaher went on to captain the first New Zealand rugby team to be referred to as the All Blacks, leading the Originals on their 1905-1906 tour to Europe and North America, their first rugby tour to the Northern Hemisphere.

The Originals played 35 matches, winning 34 – they lost to Wales – and Gallaher stood out as both leader and player.

But this isn’t just a rugby story. Gallaher enlisted in the New Zealand army during the first World War – he had earlier fought in the Boer War – at the age of 42 and was killed in action in Flanders doing as he had done on the sporting field by leading from the front.

New Zealand sports writer Matt Elliott traces Gallaher’s life, drawing on a variety of sources to provide a definitive and lavishly fulfilling account of an Irishman whose spirit and inspiration have finally received the wider recognition they deserved.

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