Review: Hard Men of Rugby is a deftly researched and engaging roster of the sport’s tough guys

Wales v Australia at the Rugby World Cup 2019. Picture by David Roberts (CC BY 2.0).

Jon Gower

This is not a book for the squeamish – so that’s the health warning done – but it is also the perfect volume to banish any anxieties about what to put in a rugby fan’s mud-bespattered stocking come this Christmas.

Luke Upton has judiciously selected a selection of players from a dozen nations you wouldn’t want ever want to run up against, unless that is you were driving a Chieftain tank.  He has also written about them in such an engaging way that an afternoon’s reading sped by quick as a mercurial wing.

But this is not about such spritely beings as, say Bryan Habana – who famously raced a cheetah – but mainly about the gravity-dependant beasts that are the forwards.  And what a tough menagerie we espy, such as the New Zealand No.8 Wayne Shelford who continued to play on in the 1986 ‘Battle of Nantes’ against France despite having four teeth knocked out and tearing his scrotum, which was then stitched up on the touchline in front of the TV cameras.

We encounter steelworker and Pontypool hooker Bobby Windsor who played a staggering 556 games at a senior level and had a no-nonsense approach in an era before TMOs: “We had to go in and punch and boot like mad. Sometimes, against bigger sets of forward, the only way we could beat them was by pure violence.”

Then there is All-Blacks captain Colin Meades who got through most of a game with a broken arm, or Weary Dunlop who reset his own broken nose with a toothbrush up each nostril.  And there is wild-haired Sébastian Chabal, one voted France’s sexiest man and whose nicknames sound like a bit of a crazy zoo in themselves – The Caveman, Attila, Rasputin, Seabass and the Anaesthetist.

 

Ban

Some of the players accumulated long lists of such injuries.  The Namibian flanker Jacques Burger alone was enough to keep the doctors busy, a sort of one-man hospital ward – as he suffered two broken cheekbones, nerve damage, keyhole surgery on the shoulder, broken and bruised ribs, torn quadriceps, high tibial osteotomy – which realigns the knee joint – lateral kneecap release and four further keyhole surgeries.

He had six surgeries on his right knee alone, two on his right shoulder, two on his cheekbones and a broken hand and kept all the screw and plates that were subsequently removed in his kit bag as a jangling reminder of past times and past pains.

It’s a tough sport after all, but this volume is in no way a celebration of thuggish-ness, yet as Barry John once put it: “It would be stupid, naïve and unrealistic to assume that in a game such as rugby with its physical side, everyone on the field would conduct themselves like perfect gentlemen, and play like chessmen.  Players and referees alike accept the frustration that pure accidents can trigger off in incidents where a fist or two will fly.”

Some players were former boxers and some simply had a heavyweight’s physique – All Blacks’ flanker Jerry Collins had biceps measuring a circumference of 52 cms which matched those of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And some didn’t just confine their punching to the pitch: the book details the career-halting occasion when Toulouse player Trevor Brennan was sufficiently riled by the taunts of Ulster fans behind him on the subs bench that he ran up six rows to hit one of them repeatedly, leading to a life-ban.

Roulette

Of course there are less serious and jollier japes along the way, not least the afternoon when Neath manager Brian Thomas took his team to see some bullfighting in the south of France and half a dozen players ended up actually in the ring, facing a seriously enraged animal more dangerous even than England lock Wade Dooley. The raging bull flattens one of the players before the prop illegally tackles it around the neck and manages to calm it down.

Then there’s the moment when Irish player Paddy Mayne threw one of his own teammates out of the window of a Swansea hotel, mercifully from a room on the ground floor. And moments of generosity, too, such as the day Jerry Collins went to a Swansea valley pub to watch a match but the TV turned out to be pretty small. “So he left the pub, got a taxi to Comet, bought a big TV there, came back to the pub with it under his arm, watched the game and left it there.”

The book also charts the changes between the amateur and professional era.  It is difficult to imagine today’s players dressing up as sailors to get into scraps in the ports of Durban and East London as did some of the Lions on their 1938 tour of South Africa. Almost.

Some other drinking incidents are very different, such as the night the French prop Armand Vaquerin found no challengers to join him in a game of Russian roulette and ended up shooting himself dead.

Cheerful

The volume is book-ended with vignettes of two rugby players who displayed their courage on the field of battle – the jeep-driving SAS officer Paddy Mayne and Army doctor Weary Dunlop and won many honours for their gallantry and broaden out the book to encompass very different fields of courage. So the book marshalls stories of wartime heroism to mix with the heady and arresting mix of challenging characters who piledrive through its pages.

I’ll leave the last words to one of the fans, however, in a story cheerfully recounted here. When Brian Thomas was playing for Neath in a local derby at the Gnoll he surfaced from a ruck with blood streaming from his mouth at which point one of Neath supporters yelled out, ‘Aberavon!  You’d better count your forwards! I think he’s eaten one of you!’

There’s plenty more where that came from in this deftly researched and genuinely engaging roster of rugby’s tough guys.

Hard Men of Rugby is published by Y Lolfa and can be bought here.

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