The latest of its kind to find itself onto the sports desk’s shelf is devoted to the history of the British and Irish Lions rugby team, who will tour South Africa next summer.
The 2009 kit is already available for purchase, with the merchandising operation that surrounds the modern day Lions a far cry from the Corinthian ideals of a tradition whose roots can be traced to 1888.
Honouring the past while casting a glace towards the team’s next adventure runs through ‘The British & Irish Lions Miscellany’ as well as the finely blended gravy that’ll be served with your Christmas Day turkey.
This book is coffee table heaven; a rugby anorak’s dream in the months leading to the test series in South Africa, the last nation the ‘home nations’ selection proved victorious against back in 1997.
It’s packed with humorous, illuminating facts drawn from over a century’s action and I for one instantly fell in love with the book.
Author Richard Bath has produced a work of anecdotal manna for journalists. And for any scribe lucky enough to be charting the Lions’ latest adventure in the flesh next summer, it ought to prove a most useful travelling companion.
For example, ‘Flower of Scotland’, now established as that eponymous country’s rugby anthem, was first sung in a sporting context not at Murrayfield, but during the 1977 tour in New Zealand.
Incidentally, the ‘uncrowned King of Scotland,’ the infamous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, as well as being a good swimmer and a proficient pugilist, was a substitute on an East African XV which played the Lions in 1955.
The dry wit long associated with the Union game is also splendidly captured by Bath, who works for Scotland on Sunday and Rugby World magazine.
He writes: “Before (the Lions) played New Zealand in the first test in 1977, a Kiwi journalist asked Bill Beaumont if he it worried him that some pundits thought that the All Blacks were invincible. ‘Of course it does,’ replied Beaumont. ‘If we can’t see them, how can we beat them?'”
Three years earlier, during the most successful tour of them all in South Africa, Lions manager Alun Thomas called a meeting to find out who among the group had billed 87 pounds worth of phone calls to his hotel room.
With no reply in the offing, Thomas produced what he believed to be his trump card. “I have checked with the international operator and the calls were made to Newport 684210,” he said.
Bobby Windsor, the only man from Gwent on the tour, rose to his feet and declared: “Okay, which one of you bastards has been phoning my wife?”
One more joke worth telling here again involves Windsor on that same tour. Towards the end of a gruelling scrummaging session, Englishman Chris Ralston remained on the deck after a pile-up of bodies cleared after a ruck.
Ireland’s Ken Kennedy, a doctor by profession, ran to Ralston to check on his well-being. “Ehctually,” the plum-voiced Ralston did declare, “the pain is absolutely excruciating.”
To which Windsor replied: “You can’t be in that much pain, boyo, if you can think of a f**king word like that.”
Of the many nuggets relating to players from this island in the book, the fact that we’ve produced the most captains of the four nations is particularly interesting.
They are: Tom Smyth (1910), Sam Walker (1938), Karl Mullen (1950), Robin Thompson (1955), Ronnie Dawson (1959), Tom Kiernan (1968), Willie John McBride (1974), Ciaran Fitzgerald (1977) and Brian O’Driscoll (2005).
McBride features regularly in the book, which is fitting considering he is the greatest Lion of all and his reaction to those who protested about the team’s travelling to South Africa was telling.
On the eve of the trip, the protestors invaded the players’ hotel at Heathrow Airport to vent their fury at the home unions’ decision to travel to a country in the grip of the apartheid regime.
McBride was angry, but not just with the protestors. The Ballymena man was incredulous that the British government could voice support for the downtrodden in South Africa while it turned a blind eye to the growing injustices in Northern Ireland.
Interestingly, the anti-apartheid group featured a young man called Peter Hain, who would later serve as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Richard Bath’s book is a gem and will provide many older rugby heads as well as those new to the game with a real education about what makes the Lions so special.
Incidentally, the author’s all-time Lions XV (whom he affords short yet detailed bios of in the book) reads:
Gavin Hastings (Scotland, full-back)
Gerald Davies (Wales, wing)
Jeff Butterfield (England, outside centre)
Mike Gibson (Ireland, inside centre)
Tony O’Reilly (Ireland, wing)
Barry John (Wales, fly-half)
Gareth Edwards (Wales, scrum-half)
Keith Wood (Ireland, hooker)
Graham Price (Wales, tighthead prop)
Fran Cotton (England, loose-head prop)
Martin Johnson (England, lock)
Willie John McBride (Ireland, lock, captain)
Fergus Slattery (Ireland, openside flanker)
Mike Teague (England, blindside flanker)
Mervyn Davies (Wales, number eight)
This tremendous book will whet the appetite well into the spring ahead of the writing of another event-filled chapter of this great rugby institution.
‘The British & Irish Lions Miscellany’ is published by Vision Sports and can be purchased online at www.lionsrugby.com