Make someone happy this Christmas…..

 If your idea of doing the Christmas shopping is to take an hour or two in a bookshop and come out with it all done, then here are a few suggestions that will take time off the journey. For those in your life with a love of rugby, any or all of this little collection will fit the bill.

 Donncha O’Callaghan – Joking Apart (Transworld Ireland)

Donncha O’Callaghan is coming to the end of his rugby career and has just sorted his autobiography ahead of time. If there is to be a grand finale then he can update it, but the good news is he won’t have to change anything else, for with this effort he got it right first time. Well, along with Denis Walsh he did. Sportsmen going down this route need to ask themselves three questions:

1 Do I have something to say that people will want to read?

2 Am I prepared to say it?

3 Am I prepared to get someone who can write, and give him or her the necessary time and access?

If you’re in any doubt on any of those fronts then you’ll end up with a crap book, badly written, full of factual errors and misspelled names. And by then it’s too late. 

O’Callaghan ticked all the right boxes. It is a well produced and really enjoyable insight into the mindset of an engaging but remarkably insecure man. Not for a minute would you think that someone who plays as O’Callaghan does is racked by self-doubt. It is the recurring theme, this need to prove himself to teammates and opponents.

This is what drove him to be always looking for an edge, something that would get him ahead of the other fella. The contradiction is that it took him an age to control his lack of discipline. “What I struggled to do was get out of my own way,” he says. Man, it was a long struggle.

And what happens then? Why his coach preys on those insecurities as part, presumably, of a psychological ruse to get the most out of him. O’Callaghan has never squared away Declan Kidney’s decision to drop him for a league game two weeks ahead of the Heineken Cup final in 2008, a game perfectly timed to give the first choice side a run out ahead of the Millennium.

“Every time I turned it over in my head I thought I knew what Deccie was doing, but that didn’t convince me that everything was going to be all right.”

Is this the way you want an insecure man leading up to a European final? It’s simplistic to conclude that because Munster won, and O’Callaghan played well, Kidney’s plan worked.    

 Perhaps O’Callaghan’s insecurities date back to the loss of his father. He was only five when his dad died (aged 40) leaving his mam to cope with five kids (of whom Donncha was the second youngest).  His description of growing up in the O’Callagahan house captures perfectly the tough circumstances, without getting maudlin. It’s the small things you notice. School tours cost money and were out of the question. He and his brothers would simply go into another class for the day. Did it make him miserable? Far from it, but he knows where he comes from and the sacrifices his mother made to keep the family together, and onside.

Staying onside with coaches and referees has been a battle for O’Callaghan, between stuff on the pitch and acting the maggot off it. He takes us on a journey through both, at times maddening as you urge him to pull his head in, and often hilarious as he describes the carry on you don’t often hear about.

Whoever you buy this book for will thank you. Excellent stuff.


Higgy – Matches, Microphones and MS. Alastair Hignell (Bloomsbury)

This is from the other end of the spectrum to Joking Apart, an altogether different read and well worth the coin. My first memories of Alastair Hignell were seeing him at full back for England – a heavy-set, bearded bloke from an age when England seemed to have lots of sturdy operators and Ireland’s were skinny and wan by comparison. It was a ’70s thing.

 Many years later I started to bump into him on the press circuit, and was struck by what a nice fella he is. Then we were all struck by his courage in the physical battle he had to wage against MS.

So this book is part rugby and cricket – and you suspect his folks built an extension to the family gaff to accommodate the press cuttings – and part multiple sclerosis and the steep climb that comes with it.

  The detail of his early career is remarkable, and it’s hard to fathom nowadays, when so much store is put on rest and recuperation, that he could have gone on as long as he did moving from one fixture to the next, and one sport to the next, without pausing for breath. And he was a social animal too, who enjoyed all Cambridge University had to offer. Incidentally if you are a casual observer of cricket then you’ll be surprised at Higgy’s description of the county circuit – a professional sport – which comes across like something from Withnail and I

 Personally though it was what happened after injury had wound up his rugby and cricket careers for him  – inevitable given his punishing workload – that reads best. You may remember watching, or rather feeling, his pain as every link failed while he was broadcasting for ITV during the opening game of the 1995 World Cup. In front an audience of 14m. It was excruciating as every avenue he turned down was a cul de sac, and the harder be tried to fill the space the deeper the hole became.

“Somehow or other, we got off air, and somehow or other, produce Pete Barraclough managed to find me, wandering about, unseeing amid the 60,000 odd fans leaving the stadium, deep in my own world of despair……I was inconsolable – until I realised that we had another live broadcast to do the next day, and maybe a dozen more to do before the end of the tournament.”      

Dealing with multiple sclerosis a few years later was a different gig. He writes really well about its gradual onset. What started out as numbness affecting movement in his hand developed into a range of symptoms that robbed him of control over his own body. His fight to regain that independence has been inspirational. And it has added to the popularity of a man who has achieved so much. This book is one of those achievements.


Rhapsody in Blue – Leinster’s Epic 2010-11 European Campaign

Coffee table stuff and the table will be all the prettier for it. This is a fine collection of pics taken by the Sportsfile agency, lead by that titan from Tralee, Brendan Moran, and enhanced by the words of Leinster PR man Peter Breen.  Beautifully produced, you get game by game coverage, with input from the key people involved, of Leinster’s Heineken Cup triumph. As a bonus, a percentage of the cover price goes to the IRFU Charitable Trust.




About Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning has been involved in rugby all of his life as a player, coach and journalist. He has been rugby correspondent on the Sunday Independent since 1996, and has been reporting on the game since the mid 1980s when he stopped playing with Clontarf. In 2007 his book From There to Here, a definitive account of Ireland’s transition from amateur to professional rugby, was published to critical acclaim.
This entry was posted in Irish Rugby, Munster Rugby, Rugby Opinion, Rugby World Cup and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Make someone happy this Christmas…..

  1. No plug for Leo Cullen’s book “A Captain’s Story”? Besides this comment, of course! 🙂

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