Book Review: Hard Men of Rugby by Luke Upton

I got given this book for Christmas, and have thoroughly enjoyed reading it since then. Luke Upton has chosen twenty of the tough sports’ tough guys and they reflect the global nature of the game, and the changes it has undergone.

There are old school hard men who played in amateur era, a wild west of skullduggery and violence, to more recent players who straddled the development of the game as it went professional, to those who play under the glare of video referees and social media. Some of the names were familiar to me, I’d even seen New Zealander Jerry Collins play for the Ospreys at the Liberty, but Upton’s discussion of older players illuminated not only their careers but a different world.

Upton writes with humour and intelligence, he recounts the brawling, hard tackling and, in some cases, dirty players with warmth and compassion, drawing on rewatching them in action on YouTube and match reports as well as interviews with several of the figures along with their teammates and opponents.

One thing that shines through is a love for the sport and the big characters who play it. The on field exploits are brutal but entertaining, much like the game itself, and some of the stories are downright crazy. The injuries sustained by the All Blacks’ Wayne “Buck” Shelford in a vicious encounter with the French team in 1986, known as the “Battle of Nantes” are eye watering, and the fact that the man continued to play on assures him of his place here.

What’s fascinating are some of the off-field stories. Stories of players forming friendships with the players they’d thumped earlier that same day, stories of overcoming adversity and in a couple of cases, using the toughness they showed on the pitch in the face of different enemies as they endured the horrors of the World Wars.

There’s also a reminder of the old amateur days where the players smashing into each other on the weekends would go back to farms, factories, hospitals and police stations on the Monday morning to their regular jobs. While professionalism has helped the game immensely, and the players (hearing about an international struggling to pay bills if he wished to keep playing are unbelievable), it has distanced the sport from the fans slightly.

Upton finds things to admire in all the players, but doesn’t sugarcoat their faults, or shy away from the fact that some were nasty buggers. But a lot of the players he does pick present dual personalities, intense at times vicious competitors on the field, but friendly, charming and relaxed off it. Perhaps the ferocity of their weekly 80 minutes helped to blow off steam.

It’s a quick and engaging read, and it made me fall back in love with rugby as I watched clips on YouTube. A cracking read and one I recommend to any fans of the sport. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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