Rugby Book Reviews

Engage: The Rise and Fall of Matt Hampson.

THESE are the bare facts of Matt Hampson’s story. A promising rugby prop who was learning his club trade with Leicester Tigers and climbing the international ladder with the England U21 side, Hampson’s career prospects had assumed a bright hue until that fateful morning of March 15, 2005. A routine scrummaging session in Northampton in preparation for England’s Six Nations U21 match against Scotland ended in disaster. A scrum collapsed and Hampson, taking the full weight of the two packs on his neck, hit the ground. He did not get up.

But for the quick intervention of referee Tony Spreadbury, a qualified paramedic, Hampson would almost certainly have died. He survived but became quadriplegic and what ensued was a lurching rollercoaster ride that saw him confined to the National Spinal Injury Unit at Stoke Mandeville for 18 months. Today Hampson lives in the Leicestershire village of Cold Overton, restricted to a wheelchair and tethered to a ventilator that keeps him alive.

Paul Kimmage’s tale of the metamorphosis of a young rugby player in prime physical condition to one paralysed below the neck is both heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measures. Hampson’s fierce struggle to cope, to comprehend the gravity of his situation and accept this is his existence, is harrowing. Then there is the torment that his family endures. Yet that support structure formed by his parents Phil and Anne, sister Amy and countless friends, chief amongst them his former Leicester Tigers team-mates, prove integral to his recovery.

And there are snapshots of brilliant humour during his bleak days and stirring moments, such as when he hears his rugby hero Darren Garforth admit Hampson was destined for the top.

The book is interspersed with testimonies from the official RFU inquiry into what happened that morning in Franklin Gardens. The consensus is this was a freak accident, a one in a million type event. Yet the latter label could equally be attached to Hampson.

His unstinting refusal to give up and terrific attitude about the future are exemplified when he confides in his father one day during his rehabilitation, “I will be a better person for this”.

Kimmage has spoken of the great difficulties he experienced in writing Hampson’s story, from the time involved travelling to conduct interviews to his insistence on searing honesty from his subject as he shone the light into some very dark places. The book encountered several delays before being concluded but the inspirational end product is worth the wait.

Fintan O’Toole

Joking Apart – My Autobiography

Donncha O’Callaghan

€18.99 (Transworld Ireland)

THIS is a real contradiction of a book, and on a couple of levels. On the one hand you can’t put it down – on my first evening picking it up I suddenly found myself into the early hours of the morning and halfway through the book. On the other you don’t want to get to the end too soon so you force yourself to pause, to close it and savour the thought of picking it up again next day.

The second contradiction is that most people coming to a biography of Donncha O’Callaghan will be prejudiced, expecting yarn after yarn from a guy who has developed with wild characters. And if this were just a biography you’d probably have got just that, a succession of anecdotes. But this is Donncha’s autobiography, superbly put to paper by Denis Walsh, and Donncha – as many on the rugby beat have come to realise over the last few years – is actually a deadly serious kind of individual, especially when it comes to his rugby.

In fact, so serious is it that this is a tome that could well have been written by his Munster and Ireland rugby twin Paul O’Connell, the man seen worldwide as Mr Intensity. And yet the irony is that, from several of the anecdotes that do actually make it onto the pages, we can surely expect that when Paul eventually sits down to write his story it could be called Gravity Apart! Overall a tremendous read, highly recommended.

Diarmuid O’Flynn

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

John J Miller

€19.99 (HarperCollins Publishers)

Available on Amazon

A COUPLE of weeks ago your correspondent was in the UC Berkeley rugby headquarters, where there were plenty of photographs and memorabilia, including a fascinating century-old shot of the ‘Big Game’, the local derby beween Berkeley and Stanford University, just down the road.

In the picture the 50,000 strong crowd was much in evidence, as was a rugby ball. This was the brief golden age of rugby in the States, when American football — responsible for 18 fatalities in 1905 alone — teetered on the brink of extinction.

In John J Miller’s account of how American football survived, Teddy Roosevelt emerges as the critical person; when he became President of the United States, he saved the sport.

Early in the last century uproar over the on-field deaths, many due to horrifically violent tactics such as the ‘flying wedge’, where the ball-carrier advanced behind a phalanx of teammates who mowed down any opponent in their way, led to calls that the game be outlawed.

Rugby thrived in the meantime, but Roosevelt’s intervention saved the day. In autumn 1905 he invited such luminaries as Walter Camp, Yale football coach, and others to a crisis meeting in the White House and nudged them towards a revision of the rules.

They simplified most of the rules and came up with a stunning innovation — the forward pass, which allowed the quarter-back to throw downfield and served to separate American football from its cousin, rugby, in the eyes of observers. Gridiron never looked back, and it’s a case of what might have been for rugby.

Miller, a noted conservative writer and thinker in America, has written a gripping story which will appeal to anyone interested in sport, not just American sport. He weaves sport and politics together fluently and the hold American football exerts on hearts and minds in the States is contextualised very well.

Michael Moynihan

Brothers in Sport: Rugby

Charlie Mulqueen

€16.99 (Mercier Press)

A RUGBY team is often regarded by its members as a family, a band of brothers, and this book by the Irish Examiner’s Charlie Mulqueen takes the logic to its natural conclusion.

An excellent idea brought to life, Brothers in Sport: Rugby offers a wonderful insight into the stories of 15 sets of rugby-playing siblings from across the decades and all four provinces.

Not all of them reached the heights of the three Wallaces – Richard, Paul and David — who each represented Ireland and the Lions, but every vignette provides a fascinating glimpse into brotherly love and rivalry.

And as Mulqueen discovers, no family is left untouched by the drama, the glories and heartbreaks that rugby can provide.

A compelling read for rugby fans and other sports would be well served by a similar treatment.

Simon Lewis

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