I’m an armchair rugby fan, and have been for nearly 30 years, but its only in the last few that I’ve read some autobiographies of coaches and players. The two books I’ve just read back to back are by two England players, one former and one current, and were both so good that I read each one in one sitting.
The first, What a Flanker, was written by the retired James Haskell. I’m going to openly admit that I had bought into the public image the media had created and thought he might be a bit of a “Merchant Banker”. I’m trying not to swear in case any kids read this, so I’ve gone for the rhyming slang option here. It wasn’t until he appeared on a podcast I listen to, non-sport related, that I realised I quite liked what he had to say. Onto the Christmas list went the book and lo and behold it’s an excellent read.
Haskell started off on the traditional path into Rugby Union, private school, academy and then into the first team. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries though, he chose to play abroad and played in France, Japan, and NZ as well as representing Wasps and Northampton in England. His stories about his time abroad are some of the best moments in the book, one moment in particular where he talks about posing for the annual Dieux de Stade calendar made me laugh out loud since it’s hard to imagine him prancing like a pony on a car park roof in the middle of Paris.
Unlike traditional biographies that take us through childhood and then the career of the author, Haskell, and his excellent ghost writer, write more as a “stories from the tour” anthology. He dots back and forth in time as the stories are grouped by type rather than time. Some stories will make you laugh, some will make you wince, and some might shed some light on victories and losses you may have sat through as a fan.
Joe Marler’s book, Loose Head, is a play on words about his position as a loose head prop but also the mental health issues he’s been quite open about in recent years. Once again, it’s a non-linear approach with subjects grouped together so we dot back and forth from teenage year to playing in a World Cup final. Once again I’d found myself buying into the image created, the bloke has the most random hair cuts and was disciplined last year for playing with the Welsh Captains testicles while everyone was having a bit of chat.
Its clear he takes his rugby seriously, but not himself, and he’s quite open about his limitations as a player, refusing to take part in explosive jump training when he’s not planning on jumping anywhere. He’s only ever played for Harlequins but didn’t want to move so commutes roughly two hours each day for training, leading to an unfortunate injury when he finally buys the sportscar he’s always dreamed of. Since his playing career overlaps with Haskell’s you get the same stories with a different perspective which made the accidental pairing of the two a wonderful bonus.
For non-rugby fans this books might not be worth it. You won’t know who half the people in the book are or understand some of the references, but for me the books are well worth a read if only to discover how to create great nicknames for people as there are some marvellous ones in there. If that’s not your thing, then wait for the paperback and pick them up cheaply. I couldn’t put the books down, but they are written in such a way that you could read a chapter, leave it for a while and come back.
I’m not great at finding quotes to add to the review, and this one is a bit of a cheat as its on the back cover. If you don’t read the books, at least follow this piece of advice – “never trust a man who showers with his pants on” as I think that’s a valid point regardless.