Hard edge or soft focus is book choice


Rugby/Gerry ThornleyNever judge a book by its cover? Going head to head on the bookshelves these past few weeks have been Paddy Johns's autobigoraphy, The Quiet En4cer, and Galwey, The Autobiography. The scowling Johns, lips curled downwards, looks in a mean mood. Galwey, left fist clenched and ball under right arm seemingly having scored a try, positively beams. And what you see is what you get.

Typical of his low profile yet high-achieving career - he is after all Ireland's fourth most capped player of all time - Johns would always have seemed the biographer least likely to kick up a ruckus, to bemoan Munster cliques, have a cut off the IRFU, or Murray Kidd, or Keith Wood, or a host of other targets.

Written in conjunction with the Belfast Newsletter's rugby correspondent Richard Bullick and Fiona Neary, and published by Sportswrite, it is not a ghosted "first person" biography, and it's all the better for that.

Johns angrily cites the itinerary of the 1992 tour to New Zealand as indicative of the IRFU's lack of thought towards the players, when the squad were obliged to hop back and forth between the two islands. Another example of this was the union's decision to stay in the Balmoral Hotel in central Edinburgh, "which was invariably noisy and guaranteed plenty of distractions" on each of his four losing visits there, "because it was nice and handy for the Blazers being right in town."

Most damning of all is his revelation that the union wouldn't sanction Johns's planned testimonial match (in which half the proceeds would have gone to charity), or at any rate insisted that the game could only be hosted by Dungannon RFC rather than the Ulster Branch.

"People can make their own minds up and the IRFU can answer for their own consciences as to whether they feel they acted in a mean-spirited manner," he is quoted as saying. "I never had any direct contact with them about the match. While I hadn't sought a match or envisaged making money out of the occasion, the petty and begrudging attitude of the union was disappointing."

However, of all the charges which Johns levels at various people or groups in the game, the one which will provoke more disappointment, anger and hurt is that aimed at the supposed Munster cliques in the Irish squad.

"There were so many Munster players in the senior squad that I felt the whole thing had become very cliquish. We knew the Munster guys were always very tight with each other and Mick Galwey had a big influence as a father figure, but other people maybe ended up feeling a bit left out," he says, adding: "The Munster players were always nice enough individually, but when they got together they were hard to listen to."

A good many of his Munster contemporaries are seething about this and thinking back to the times when journalists weren't kept at arm's length from Irish squads, I can recall many incidents on the South African tour of 1998 particularly, with Johns as captain, when cliques were actively discouraged.

For example there was one open barbecue (Roy Keane would never have approved) during which the sight of three or more players from the same provincial team congregating ensured choruses of "clique" and on-the-spot fines.

Johns's complaints are coupled with the absence of any Munster player from his best XV, with Allen Clarke being chosen ahead of Keith Wood partly on the grounds that "Keith Wood has exceptional abilities but sometimes it felt like you were playing with seven forwards and that's bloody hard work." Thus you have to wonder if Johns's slight at Munster players reflects as much on him as the supposed clique. At the very least, Johns's barb seem unnecessary, unjustified and unhelpful.

One for rugby enthusiasts only perhaps, but in the unlikely event that many of them get around to reading it, a host of IRFU officials and employees should feel embarrassed by some of the book's contents.

By contrast Galwey keeps the gloves very much on when reflecting on his career in his autobigraphy, which was written in conjunction with Charlie Mulqueen of the Irish Examiner - the doyen of Irish rugby writers - and published by Irish Rugby Review.

Perhaps the fact that Johns is a qualified dentist and can afford to walk away from the game with a greater degree of financial independence at least partially accounts for their differing attitudes when it came to penning their biographies.

Galwey, by comparison, is still under an IRFU playing contract, and having taken his first steps toward coaching with the Carlow pack, clearly has designs on a future non-playing role in Munster.

Accordingly the book is an altogether more light-hearted, anecdotal account of his playing days. There's no disputing Galwey's popularity either. Already the first print run of 7,500 copies has been sold, making it second only to Roy Keane's autobiography in Ireland's "Hardback Non-Fiction" sales list and another print of run of 3,000 softback copies have been rushed on to the shelves. It's a remarkable testament to the man.

The History of the Association of Referees Leinster Branch IRFU is not a title to have you beating a path to Easons, perhaps, knocking down little old ladies and children on the way, yet you can see a huge amount of work has gone into this attractive looking production.

The IRB International Rugby Yearbook (Collins Willow, £14.99) has taken over from the now defunct Rothmans Yearbook as the definitive bible of the game.

Meantime, though I'm still looking for it, there's an intriguing-sounding update of the sepia-tinted life and times of George Napia - the famous All Blacks full back who played in all 32 matches of The Invincibles' tour of Britain and Ireland in 1932 - called I, George Napia: The Autobiography of a Rugby Legend by George Napia and Terry McLean (London League Publications). Amid more autobiographies or diaries by such as Jeremy Guscott and Jonny Wilkinson, a better bet might be Talking Rugby: The Changing World of Professional Rugby by Gareth Edwards (Headline).

In an above-average year the rugby book of 2002, though I'd have to confess a lack of impartiality here, is Putting It On The Line, a year in the life of the Irish rugby team by Billy Stickland (the doyen of sports snappers) and the rest of the crew at the Inpho Sports Photographic Agency.

It'll be a long time before there's ever something like this on the shelves again, if ever. Despite some petty meddling from the IRFU, it's a high-class production and a photographic feast, both in terms of quantity and quality, studded with a few contributions from the, eh, crème de menthe of Irish rugby writers.

Happy Christmas.