Christmas stocking fillers – John Ledger casts his expert eye over a selection of the best publications
RUGBY league has rarely looked at ease with the richness of its own history.
A sport forged in the heat of a revolution in 1895 has invariably been too pre-occupied with moving forward to look back and appreciate the significance of a proud heritage.
The siting of the first Hall of Fame in a pub on the outskirts of Leeds back in 1988 perfectly illustrated the casual indifference with which league held the wealth of memorabilia relating to some of the nation's greatest sporting heroes.
Much of that material is now boxed up and hidden away in storage, waiting for the Rugby Football League to find the wherewithal, the venue and the will to open an official museum.
Mike Stephenson, the Sky TV commentator and former Great Britain hooker, has done a sterling job in trying to plug the gap with his excellent Gillette RL Heritage Centre at The George Hotel in Huddersfield but it is a sad truth that the vast majority of league's historical treasures remain inaccessible to the public.
The advent of the Super League era served to widen the gap between past and present, a situation exacerbated by the attitude of the RFL's then chief executive Maurice Lindsay, a man who shared Sam Goldwyn's view that "history is bunk."
The 87m the sport received from Sky in 1996 was widely welcomed but it was not without casualties, one of which was the possibility that the open hostilities between Super League and the ARL Down Under would end full-blooded tours featuring Great Britain and Australia.
Asked if he felt that was a price worth paying, Lindsay replied: "I've never agreed with it being called The Ashes anyway. The Ashes are in cricket."
That comment appalled the sport's traditionalists, many of whom still cannot find it in them to forgive Lindsay.
One such figure is Harry Edgar, the editor and publisher of Rugby League Journal, a quarterly magazine which celebrates league's nostalgia in a way followers of the sport from any era will appreciate.
"Those words still send a shiver down my spine every time I re-read them," said Edgar.
"I have no idea when the next Ashes series might be planned, if one is planned at all, but for Rugby League Journal readers the memories of the Ashes will remain and their importance to the very fabric of the game we supported will never be underestimated."
Each year Edgar also publishes an annual featuring vintage and contemporary photographs of players, events and venues in a format which is guaranteed to stimulate thought and conversation.
Now in its fourth year, the 2008 annual is another excellent production, which includes chapters on every professional club, including historic milestones, pictures of great players and other evocative images such as programme covers.
The chapter on Bradford, for example, has images of a team group from the 1960s, an action picture featuring Peter Dunn and Mick Blacker and a photograph of Ernest Ward with the Challenge Cup in 1949, as well as the cover of a programme from a match against Doncaster in 1966.
Elsewhere there is a chapter on classic half-back partnerships, which include Don Fox and Joe Mullaney and Keith Hepworth and Alan Hardisty, while the impression made by Wally Lewis during his 10-match stint at Wakefield in 1983-84 is recalled in an entertaining article.
The annual also records
the feats of players from
the present day, including St Helens and Great Britain full-back Paul Wellens, who graces the cover, and the 2007 seasons in England, Australia and
New Zealand are reviewed in full.
But it is the tales of pictures from yesteryear that offer most interest, including the celebration of 100 years of Ashes rugby, an article which is illustrated by a rare photograph of Gus Risman broadcasting on radio from the pitch at the Sydney Cricket Ground after England's victory over Australia in the third Test of 1936.
"The aim of the annual is to be able to share some of the fascinating information, photographs and memorabilia we have collected which bring to life so many reminders of the game many of us grew up with," said Edgar.
"Unashamed nostalgia? Of course – but also an important exercise in helping ensure some of the admirable people who did so much to build rugby league's wonderful heritage are not forgotten and to encourage the younger generation of fans to learn more about the game's history."
Wise words and noble aims from the driving force behind an annual which deserves a place on the bookshelf of every rugby league supporter.
And on the desk of every rugby league administrator.
Rugby League Journal Annual 2008 (12.95) is available from bookshops or post free from RL Journal, PO Box 22, Egremont, Cumbria CA23 3WA.Unearthing treasure trove of information
The Rugby League Miscellany, by David Lawrenson (Vision Sport Publishing, 9.99)
Just like that book by Ben Schott but a lot more interesting. Rugby league has been crying out for a book like this for years and Lawrenson has done an excellent job in filling a sporting niche.
Fans old and new will appreciate the treasure trove of information on league, from the origins of the Challenge Cup, through potted biographies of some of the sport's legends to cracking bits of trivia such as the fact that former Radio 2 disc jockey and crooner Jimmy Young once rejected a contract offer from Wigan and the record for the fastest hat-trick is held by Huddersfield's Chris Thorman. Unputdownable.
Sculthorpe, Man of Steel, by Paul Sculthorpe (Century, 18.99)
The former Great Britain captain has become famous for not playing in recent seasons but the St Helens loose forward's injuries cannot detract from a glittering career, the story of which is detailed in his in-depth autobiography written with Sun journalist Phil Thomas.
After joining St Helens from War rington in a world record 370,000 transfer, Sculthorpe went on to become a pivotal figure in the Knowsley Road club becoming the dominant force in Super League and his inside view of their rise is informative and insightful.
Champagne Rugby, by Henri Garcia (London League Publications, 12.95)
The presence in Super League of Catalans Dragons is helping drive up playing standards across the Channel but France remain far from the force they were in the 1950s, a decade which saw the treizistes play some breathtaking rugby, as Henri Garcia's informative book (translated by Roger Grime) reminds us.
Led by the legendary Puig Aubert, France twice beat Australia in Test series and drew a third and Garcia, who covered all three tours as rugby league correspondent of L'Equipe, recounts all the action in a passionate style which perfectly captures the spirit of the age.
Champions! The Story of the 2007 Leeds Rhinos, by Phil Daly and Leanne Flynn (Ignition Publications, 9.99)
Tony Smith's final season in charge was one to remember and all Leeds fans will love this comprehensive record of how the Rhinos clinched their second Super League title.
With a report, statistics and pictures from every match, Leeds played in 2007, including the grand final victory over St Helens, details of pre-season friendlies and an account of the victorious home-coming with the Super League trophy, the 96-page booklet is a slick and expertly executed memento.
An appreciation of Smith's impact at Leeds by writer Phil Caplan round is a fitting tribute.
Grand Final, by Graham Morris (Vertical Editions, 19.99)
The first Super League grand final was played in 1998, when Wigan beat Leeds, but the concept of an end-of-season climax goes back to 1897, as Graham Morris explains in his exhaustively-researched 224-page A4-sized hardback.
Illustrated with over 200 black and white photographs, Morris's book devotes at least two pages to each decider, from the 1907 Championship final between Halifax and Oldham to Leeds Rhinos' 33-6 victory over St Helens at Old Trafford.
Gillette RL Yearbook 2007-2008, by Tim Butcher and Daniel Spencer (League Publications, 16.99)
Now firmly established as required reading for every follower of rugby league, the 12th yearbook produced is another gem.
Featuring a detailed account of all the action from the Test arena, Super League, National Leagues, Challenge Cup and competitions around the world, the annual also includes a mine of statistical information and analysis.
Special features this year include a chapter on the five biggest personalities of 2007, three of whom were involved with one club. No prizes for guessing which one...
Stevo, Looking Back, by Mike Stephenson (Vertical Editions, 17.99)
Younger generations know Stevo only as the controversy-courting voice of rugby league on Sky Sports but there is more about the former Great Britain hooker than corny catchphrases and discomforting looks to camera, as his self-penned autobiography proves.
Stephenson's recollections of childhood poverty in the Savile Town area of Dewsbury, the account of his pioneering years at fledgling Australian club Penrith and the realisation of his dream to open a rugby league museum make for entertaining reading, although the 'love-in' chapter on how wonderful his Sky colleagues are is cringe-inducing.CROWNING GLORY
Leeds Rhinos players celebrate one of their five tries in the 2007 Super League grand final against St Helens at Old Trafford. It is one of several hundred colour images by photographer Terry George to feature in Access All Areas (12.95), a specially commissioned pictorial review of a momentous year for the Headingley club.
George was given open access to the Leeds players before and after matches and his book is a unique record of events leading up to the Rhinos' title triumph. Access All Areas is available from the club shops at Headingley and Leeds city centre with all proceeds going to the Leeds Rugby Foundation, a charitable body delivering sport, health and lifestyle services to young people in Yorkshire.