My Favourite Rugby Books - of all time!

My Favourite Rugby Books - of all time!

It's a rare title this one - but it's a great and sometimes very sad Irish rugby story.

16 January 2015

Still loafing around over the summer break in scorching New Zealand and with a swag of books found under the Christmas tree and only one is about rugby has got me thinking.

I am absolutely enjoying the ones Father Christmas, my family and friends have bought me (plus the secretly Christmas treat I purchased for myself) I am actually pleased not to be overburdening my senses about a game which occupies much of my thinking in other months of the year. One needs to take a break sometimes.

My reading preferences are to avoid fiction at all times and concentrate instead on biography, autobiography, history and written commentary on life. And rock music of course! (You may know that I have a hobby collection of over 600 books and significant publications all on the subject of The Beatles!) The bottom line is - I love to read!

However, having written 14 books of my own, mostly about rugby, there has been time these last few weeks to reflect  on which are my favourite books on the great game. So for no reason here  is one man's selection of some best rugby books you should try to read this year or in the future.

Suitcase Number Seven - by Ursula Kane Cafferty. This is a memoir about an Irish rugby halfback of the early 1960s who, through his lively talent, rose to be a reserve for his country for 17 internationals but who never actually ever got on the field. Most of the story is factual. Other parts are stitched together by the author, who was the niece of Tom Clancy after helping the family to clear up Uncle Tom's possessions after he passed away. Inside a battered Irish Rugby Union tour suitcase it turned out was the poignant story of Tom's lonely late years. From his early optimism, then his disappointments at the lack of fulfilment from his rugby and then the slow slide of his later life choices. It is at times an enormously sad read but hugely uplifting on other pages - and Cafferty, in her first book, grabbed me from page one.  I think this is my favourite rugby story.

Now, in no particular order are other books I have come to admire, respect and yes, love.

Stand Up and Fight- When Munster beat the All Blacks - by Alan English. This was an account of Munster's famous 12-0 victory over the 1978 All Blacks. Lovingly written about what is still called the greatest day in Irish rugby and updated with the memories and thoughts of the players from the famous game. A terrific book  about one game on one momentous day.

I wrote a book about the great New Zealander Colin Meads and I suppose I was inspired to do so  by two earlier great rugby books about him. I loved Colin Meads - All Black - by Alex Veysey and also Meads - by Brian Turner. Between them those two books sold over 100,000 copies and were so brilliantly and differently constructed in their own ways. My own modest effort had to be different but I am very proud of my A-Z of Meads. I reckon if you read all three you might know most of what old Pinetree is about. And what he is - is GREAT!

FitzSimons on Rugby - by Peter FitzSimons. The 1980s ex-Wallaby is now the best seller of non-fiction across the Tasman (I received his latest, 'Gallipoli' from Santa this summer) but in his early years at the typewriter he showed glimpses of his future talent. Writing about rugby clearly helped his forward progress. In his writings about rugby two I really enjoy are FitzSimons on Rugby which is a collection of his early columns and observations.  The Rugby War was much more serious, the only in depth historical record of the battles for control of the old amateur game and its change to professionalism. Peter himself was very proud of The Rugby War but once said to me, 'why didn't more New Zealanders buy that book?' My reply was something along the lines of 'too serious mate.' Nevertheless it still holds up the much-needed documentation of turbulent years for changes in the world game.

A few years back my dear wife stood, arms akimbo, and told me that as we were shortly shifting to a smaller place of residence my collection of a myriad number of rugby books, magazines, papers, and tapes  could not ALL go with me. So a 'cull' had to take place.

These became traumatic times for me which even today I still can't bring myself to write about in any depth. Sob!

No books were thrown away. But perfectly good books (all well written I reckon) were handed on to mates and acquaintances and two truckloads went off on two Wednesdays to a rugby museum. On the second of those afternoons I stood at the end of our driveway and watched the last vehicle disappear out of sight. But having said all that, let me add that ALL of the rugby books written by the late Terry McLean just had to come with me to our new apartment.  That was non-debateable.

Of the 32 he thundered into his well-worn typewriter I have several real favourites of his. I think New Zealand Rugby Legends - 15 Reflections is the one I still reach for first. In it Terry wrote simple but deep profiles on 15 of New Zealand's greatest players. It was an uncomplicated formula but each chapter contained reflections on players he had met and talked to from much earlier times. Terry wrote a full book on George Nepia one time, so must have come to know the great fullback very well indeed. But in New Zealand Rugby Legends he could have been writing about a new person he had met only yesterday such was the variance and brilliance of his expression in this book.

Put me also down as total admirers of Terry's All Black tour books; Willie Away, Goodbye to Glory, They Missed the Bus, and Battle of the Rugby Crown.  

But honestly, all of Terry's books are still very readable today. He was a master craftsman and wordsmith. He fully deserved to be our first Knighted sportswriter - I was proud to call him a friend - and vice versa I hope.

Another bloke I travelled with and called a friend was the aforementioned Alex Veysey.  Alex wasn't good on remembering people's names so he called everyone 'Horse.'  Therefore I was known by that name by him. I did not take offence. (In reply I have to say all of Alex's good buddys  took to calling him 'Horse' too, but he was richly admired in his time) 'Horse's' book on Colin Meads was, for many decades, New Zealand's best-selling book (something like over 60,000 copies sold) but I also admired his double biography on those two rugby pranksters, Stu Wilson and Bernie Fraser. 'Ebony and Ivory' was the name of a Paul McCartney hit song at the time but in a rugby sense Alex crafted their friendship and team mateship expertly into another favourite.

As I am of a certain age I call clearly recall the thrall in which our whole country held the 1956 Springbok touring team when they arrived for their 24 match tour hee. Somewhere I think a scrapbook I kept of that tour also survived the earlier mentioned 'cull' of house-shifting .  It should be too personal for anyone to throw away. That is why when 'Old Heroes'  was published many years later I rushed to buy Warwick Roger's book. It is a full reflective look back on that great tour and captures perfectly the mood, attitudes and agitation that tour and team engendered. As a nation little 'ole NewZild of the mid-1950s deeply resented that Springbok team and our collective national support was fully behind the All Blacks like never before - or since. (including may I say, from my point of view, the excietment of Rugby World Cup 2011).


Well, that's a top ten of favourite rugby books, so I'll leave it at that.... except that I must give an 'honourable mention' to other titles; like....

Union - The Heart of Rugby - by Chris Thau. A rare book in New Zealand but it is the IRB's look at the history and expansion of their world game.

The Game for all New Zealand - photographs of New Zealand rugby by Peter Bush. Everything is covered in a lavish presentation.

Silver Fern - 150 Years of New Zealand Sport - Another of Terry McLean's books. I couldn't leave it out!

Mud In your Eye - by Chris Laidlaw. This book was ahead of its time; so many people complained about it when it came out but it was the first 'honest' book written from the inside about being an All Black.

The Judas Game - by Joseph Romanos. A novel about the game which hit the mark and deserved more from its reviewers.

Foreskin's Lament (a play) and McCaw by Greg McGee (The latter is now New Zealand's biggest-selling sporting title at 115,000 copies through the tills. Wow!!)

A Life in Focus by Paul Thomas and Peter Bush. 'Bushy's' life story - when are books 2 and 3 coming out? - the man has so many stories to tell of his wanderings with his cameras.

Graham Mourie - Captain by Graham Mourie. This one was written by Mourie himself - a very fine effort.

Men in Black - by Ron Palenski. (With its numerous updated editions its probably the book which day-to-day I refer to the most because of its total accuracy in recording the year-by-year history of the All Blacks)

They above too were all tops!


But I must stop now! Otherwise I'll start recalling ALL of those loving rugby titles I gave away in 'The Great Cull of '09!' Ouch!

The last question is; have I missed any great rugby books out? email me at and give me your suggestions.



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  • 26 January 2015 (9 years ago)



    I must agree on "The Rugby War" by Peter Fitzsimons. I cannot praise it enough. I have since started collecting Peter's other books, with "Kokada" and "Tobruk" being excellent reads. " Gallipoli" is on my shelf of to be read books. " Old Heroes" would be a close second in the rugby stakes.Anything by Quinn running in third!

  • 16 January 2015 (9 years ago)


    Good selection Keith, agree about TP McLean I have all his books plus the biography written about him after his death. Not everyone’s cup of tea but certainly a legendary sports journalist and TPs books when I was a youngster were important reads for me as his books gave me insight NZ Rugby before my birth.
    Mind you your books are good read also. Also enjoy FitzSimons work he is an oustanding author.