REVIEW: Off The Cuff: The Lee Briers Autobiography, by Lee Briers and Mike Appleton

Off The Cuff by Lee BriersHe has been one of the defining faces of Super League over the last 15 years, but Lee Briers will not be lacing his boots in 2014.

His retirement due to injury has robbed rugby league fans of at least 12 more months watching one of his generation’s most naturally gifted players, but Off The Cuff, Briers’ autobiography, gives us all one last chance to relive some of the highs and lows of a career that has always been anything but dull.

Briers teamed with ghostwriter Mike Appleton to produce his entertaining reflection on a distinguished career that included three Wembley wins and a Lance Todd trophy.

“Since I started in 1997 I reckon it (rugby league) has evolved three or four times. I’m not here to blow my own trumpet but I have had to reinvent myself at least twice… The game has changed massively and you only have to see the athletes on the field today, and like you I’m stood in awe of some of the people I play with and against. I really do think the game can go from strength to strength, but we need someone with imagination to take it forward.”

It is not just fans and pundits who rated Briers’ skills. He might have been overlooked by Great Britain coaches for the best part of a decade, but take this verdict from Andrew Johns as credible proof of his ability:

“I don’t know why he never played more games at the highest level, perhaps it was the larrikin streak in there, but I would have him right up there with the best players in Australia. He is up there with Laurie Daley, Brad Fittler and Darren Lockyer; with the elite half-backs because his skill and talent is so high… His passing game was probably the best I had ever played with.”

From those early days at St Helens through to his role as elder statesman in a Warrington team that finally began to fulfil its potential, Briers was always a player that was impossible to ignore.

His infectious enthusiasm, the cheeky lip to referees and the undeniable on-field brilliance will linger in memories well beyond the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

“I just want to be known as someone who was entertaining, a little unpredictable and who always played with a smile on his face. If people remember that, with a pint in their hands, then that’ll do me.”

It’s hard to see him not getting his wish.

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Off The Cuff: The Lee Briers Autobiography, by Lee Briers and Mike Appleton, is available now. ISBN 978-1904091783, published by Vertical Editions. Buy now and save on the cover price.

REVIEW: Big Jim: Jim Mills – A Rugby Giant, by Peter Lush and Maurice Bamford

Big JimWho is rugby league’s biggest bad boy? Gareth Hock? Willie Mason? Ten years ago Barrie McDermott would have been up there, too. But none of them compare to Jim Mills, whose authorised biography Big Jim has just hit the shelves.

The former Widnes, Halifax, Salford, Bradford, Workington and North Sydney forward was sent off a staggering 20 times during his career in the sixties and seventies, a fact former Warrington forward Mike Nicholas remembers all too clearly.

“Jim and I used to keep the disciplinary committee busy in the 1970s. We used to go in with the other players on charge and they would save our hearings till last. They used a trolley to wheel our files in and the committee used to boo us as we came in.

“I was sent off 15 times and Jim 20. Jim didn’t do anything by halves; he ended up banned from the whole southern hemisphere at one point. He got sent off everywhere except New Zealand, and that’s because they wouldn’t allow him in the country to play.”

Nicholas recently attended the launch of ‘Big Jim’, where 250 guests gathered to pay tribute to a man who won 17 caps for Wales and six for Great Britain during a career that took in three Wembley Challenge Cup finals for Widnes and 11 other finals for a team known as the ‘Cup Kings’.

“There were two firsts,” says Nicholas of the launch event. “One was the first round of applause I’ve ever had from a Widnes crowd, and the second was to get a handshake from Jim instead of a headbutt.”

Doug Laughton, who Mills played alongside at Widnes before the pair teamed up in the club’s coaching set-up, shares his own memories of Mills in the book’s foreword.

“As a rugby player Jim was a huge, very fit, fast, intelligent, tough forward who I never saw take a backward step. You would want Jim in your team anywhere, anytime,” says Laughton.

But it is an amusing tale that Laughton remembers that perhaps most sums up the reputation Mills carried during his illustrious and often notorious career.

“When tackle counts came into our game I was assistant coach to Frank Myler,” says Laughton. “One day Frank said to me: ‘Doug, big Jim has only done one tackle all game.’ I said to Frank: ‘Have a word with him,’ and Frank did.

“’Jim, you only made one tackle in all the game, what have you got to say?’ Looking Frank straight in the eye, Jim said: ‘Frank, would you run at me during a game?’ The team meeting ended in laughter as nobody in their right mind would run anywhere near big Jim.”

Big Jim is an entertaining read for fans who remember a bygone era in rugby league, spreading light on one of the sport’s biggest personalities of the time.

Now approaching 70, he still enjoys watching rugby league. And as authors Peter Lush and Maurice Bamford put it, “at least now if he is heading along the M62 towards Leeds, it is usually for a social occasion or to watch a match, and not to try to explain to the disciplinary committee why he got his retaliation in first.”

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Big Jim: Jim Mills – A Rugby Giant, by Peter Lush and Maurice Bamford, is available now. ISBN 978-1903659700, published by London League Publications. Buy now and save on the cover price. This title is also available in Kindle edition.

REVIEW: Heading For The Line, by Michael Miles

headingforthelineMichael Miles only started watching rugby league three years ago when London’s Evening Standard ran a promotion offering free tickets to watch Harlequins (as they were then), but he has now produced what must rank as one of the definitive guides to rugby league grounds across the UK.

Heading For The Line gives any travelling fan everything they need for any away day. Each professional and semi-professional club is covered, so whether you’re heading to the DW Stadium or the Prince of Wales Stadium, everything is at your fingertips.

Want to know the best route to the Keepmoat Stadium? Miles has got it covered. How about disabled access at the Stade Gilbert Brutus? Check. Fancy a pint at Workington, a visit to the club shop at York or the best bus to get to Hull KR? It’s all here, packed into 120 pages of anorak heaven.

There are also sections covering World Cup venues, the National Conference, Armed Services – and even a brief look at Australia’s NRL grounds.

Miles writes: “The aim of this book is simple. It is to provide the travelling rugby league fan access to all the information they need to get the maximum out of their rugby travels.” Mission accomplished.

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Heading For The Line
, by Michael Miles, is available now. ISBN 978-1903659670, published by London League Publications. Buy now and save on the cover price. This title is also available in Kindle edition.

 

REVIEW: In Full Bloem, by Jamie Bloem and Andrew Hardcastle

Jamie BloemJamie Bloem is standing in a corridor in the bowels of the Halliwell Jones Stadium, coffee in hand, preparing to commentate on one of the coldest matches Super League has ever witnessed.

Twenty years ago, he had not heard of rugby league. Now, after a rollercoaster career, he is a former international player, a current BBC pundit and a Championship One referee – and that’s without touching on any of the controversies.

As a player, Bloem was a polarising figure. But with the release of Andrew Hardcastle’s biography In Full Bloem, the public is being given a chance to see Bloem in a different light.

“London League Publications got hold of me, said they wanted to do a book on me and asked if I’d be interested,” he explains. “We’d already done a book in the past with Steve Deane, but that wasn’t really what I wanted it to be. Peter put me in touch with Andrew Hardcastle, and we met every Monday for 14 or 15 months.

“I wanted to be part of it. I wanted it to be about me, not about what people think about me. The way I was on the field is not the way I am off the field. I’m a family man and I wanted that to be put across – and I’m really pleased with the end result. It’s everything I wanted it to be.”

In Full Bloem is not a long book, but his story is utterly remarkable. Say his name on the terraces at most rugby league grounds across the country and even now, 19 years on, there are two words that are likely to come back: drugs cheat.

“I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life. Every part of your life, no matter how good or bad it is, makes you the person you are today. My daughter’s nine and my son’s 15, and I’ve made them read the book. They needed to read every single part of it. They never knew about the steroid stuff – it was way before they were born – so I’ve made them read the book and ask me questions.

“When I got banned in 1994 my wife and I had only just met. I said to her then if she wanted to go, she could go – but she stuck by me. For two years the only salary we had was hers, which was £580 a month. That’s all we had. We had to pay rent and live off that. When you do that, you learn the value of money and the value of your relationship.

“We became so close over those two years that our bond became stronger than anything else. Do I regret taking steroids? No I don’t, because if I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t have been with my wife right now. I’d have probably been one of the idiots running about like other rugby players do, doing stupid things.

“Instead I became very grounded and when I got signed on at Widnes 18 months into my ban, I really appreciated what I’d got. People often say, ‘do you regret it?’ I don’t regret it one bit.”

Bloem is clearly at peace with his past. One of the book’s more remarkable tales is his flirtation with American Football while banned from rugby league, with only his determination to succeed in the 13-man game preventing a professional career.

“London Monarchs offered me a contract after about three or four weeks of playing with London Olympians. It was £500 a week, and £5,000 a game, which was a lot of money for me. I was quite keen, but they wanted me to move to London so I could train most days.

“It’s a totally different game; it looks like it’s slow, but the collisions are a lot more strenuous, especially on your knees. They use their helmets to dive at your knees, instead of tackling you, and I could just imagine my career not lasting very long. One hit on the side of your knee, and it’s gone.

“My wife and I sat down and sat ourselves some goals. I wanted to come back to rugby and prove to people I wasn’t the player I was because of steroids. I wanted to play international rugby again. I wanted to play Super League. In doing all of that, I couldn’t afford to get injured playing American Football – even though the money would have been great.”

He now runs a landscaping business alongside his refereeing and commentating commitments. “I’m doing Championship One games this year and I’m hoping to progress through that. I’m really happy. I’m not refereeing for money, I’m refereeing because I enjoy it.

“I could have done media work and earned the same money as I do from refereeing, but I chose to referee and I do it because I enjoy it. I don’t mind going to Hemel, Gloucester, Oxford or Gateshead – I just love being part of it and giving a little bit back.”

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In Full Bloem, by Jamie Bloem and Andrew Hardcastle, is available now. ISBN 978-1903659656, published by London League Publications. Buy now and save on the cover price.

This review first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Forty-20 magazine.

REVIEW: Gillette Rugby League Yearbook 2012-2013, by Tim Butcher and Daniel Spencer

How will you remember 2012?

The year of Super League’s ill-fated sponsorship deal with Eddie Stobart? Bradford’s dance with disaster? Or the season of booming TV viewers and ever-increasing attendances?

Whatever your memories, they’re all covered in the Gillette Rugby League Yearbook 2012-2013, League Publications’ exhaustive and indispensable guide to another summer of rugby league action from around the world.

Mick Potter, Kevin Sinfield, Scott Dureau, Sam Tomkins and Chris Hill are named as the five personalities of 2012, having all enjoyed seasons they are unlikely to forget.

A section of full-colour action photographs brings to life a detailed account of the year just gone, while at the back is the usual comprehensive collection of statistics that now put the Gillette Rugby League Yearbook up there alongside the old Rothmans Yearbooks from years gone by.

Every match across Super League, Championship and Championship One is covered, along with a list of every player to have featured in the history of Super League and a club-by-club breakdown of the 2012 season.

And at 320 pages there is surely enough to keep everyone going until the new season begins.

Get it on your Christmas list now.

 

The Gillette Rugby League Yearbook 2012-2013, by Tim Butcher and Daniel Spencer, is available now. ISBN 978-1901347265, published by League Publications. Buy now and save on the cover price.

REVIEW: Coaching Is Chaos, by John Kear and Peter Smith

Few rugby league books can ever have started with quite so much intensity as Coaching Is Chaos.

John Kear’s new autobiography is a trawl through a coaching career that has included two Challenge Cup successes, as well as steering England through their 2000 World Cup campaign.

But life is not just about fairytales.

Chapter One – entitled simply ‘Adam and Leon’ – contains Kear’s memories of the deaths of Wakefield’s Adam Watene and Leon Walker. It is everything you would expect: poignant, upsetting and deeply moving.

“I hope no club ever has to go through a year like it, but the strength of the club and the sport shone through. Throughout all the heartbreak, I was proud to be associated with both.”

Kear has worked with Yorkshire Evening Post writer Peter Smith on producing this book. The result is a well-written, thoughtful autobiography that is both revealing and entertaining.

A fall-out with Kath Hetherington is explained in detail, as is the planning that went into Sheffield’s 1998 Challenge Cup triumph.

Kear and his Eagles team wrote themselves into rugby league folklore that day, but it was nearly very different.

“We travelled to the capital on the Thursday and went out tenpin bowling and then for a Chinese meal in the evening. I had an allergic reaction to something I ate and one stage I was quite seriously poorly… I rang the team doctor, Janet Hornbuckle. Fortunately she had some Piriton, which is an allergy cure, with her. That settled everything down, but at one stage my eyes had swollen up so much they were starting to close and she was on the point of taking me to a hospital… I was convinced I was going to miss the biggest game of my life.”

Kear’s love of rugby league bursts off every page of Coaching Is Chaos, and one of the final chapters includes his thoughts on the future of the sport.

Rugby league has been better for having Kear involved. This cracking read shows exactly why he is so highly thought of.

 

Coaching Is Chaos, by John Kear and Peter Smith, is available now. ISBN 978-0956804358, published by Scratching Shed Publishing. Buy now and save on the cover price.

REVIEW: Moz: My Story, by Adrian Morley and Phil Wilkinson

Adrian Morley has been around a bit. So long, in fact, that he actually played alongside Ellery Hanley, the last British hero of rugby league who was appreciated Down Under as much as Moz.

Hanley is one of an impressive array of sporting stars to have contributed chapters to Morley’s autobiography Moz: My Story. Ryan Giggs, Jamie Peacock, Ruben Wiki, Ricky Stuart and Matt King have also chipped in.

But it is only when Hanley starts his tribute that it dawns on you how long Morley has been tearing teams to bits. “I only ever played alongside Adrian for a few minutes,” writes Hanley, who left Leeds in the mid-nineties, “but I saw enough of him then to convince me he was destined to be a great player.”

Morley has been the perfect link between Hanley’s era and today’s full time athletes. At times he has been the leading forward in the world, with a game built on aggression and stamina that carried his intimidating frame through the toughest challenges rugby league has to offer.

But at other times, such as receiving a drink driving ban just weeks after an Ashes test series sponsored by the ‘Think! Don’t Drink and Drive’ campaign, he has made charmingly shambolic mistakes that hark back to the sport’s more amateur days.

Morley can at least smile now, reflecting in the epilogue that ‘by page 65 of this book I’ve been CS gassed three times. Three times! That’s just about as far removed from my life now as it could get.”

Regardless of what has happened off the field, he is a man who will be remembered for his on-field actions – and with a new contract under his arm, there is still more to come.

It is often repeated that Morley is as pleasant off the field as he is frightening on it. Moz: My Story paints a picture of a man who values family, loyalty, faith and friends, but who also knows how to have a laugh with the best of them.

Morley finishes his story by looking ahead, to a time beyond rugby league. “A time when no one will want my autograph or picture. A time when I will have to pay to keep fit, instead of being paid for it.”

He is unlikely to be forgotten.


 
Moz: My Story, by Adrian Morley and Phil Wilkinson, is available now. ISBN 978-1907637575, published by Vision Sports Publishing. Buy now and save on the cover price.

This is an edited version of a review that appears in the November 2012 issue of Forty-20 magazine. Buy the magazine to read the full, extensive review.

REVIEW: A Lad From Donkey Common: A Rugby League Life, by Austin Rhodes

WITH the World Cup less than 12 months away, few Englishmen have the first-hand knowledge of what it takes to win rugby league’s biggest global tournament.

But Austin Rhodes, whose autobiography A Lad From Donkey Common has just been published by London League Publications, is one of them.

The former St Helens, Leigh and Swinton goal-kicking ace was equally at home at full back or stand-off, and his skills were rewarded with Challenge Cup triumphs along with the tag of world champion in 1960, having played his part in Britain’s 10-3 win over Australia at Odsal.

This is a nostalgic reflection on rugby league as it was in the fifties and sixties, made all the more interesting by contributions from Frank Myler and Tom van Vollenhoven.

Rhodes explains: “As a result of rugby league I was able to meet my wife, buy my house and forge enduring friendships with many people at home and abroad.

“Perhaps I’ve paid the price for competing in such a tough sport with a series of hip replacements since I retired from playing. I’ve had four procedures on the same hip up to 2011 – probably a world record. But if I had my time again, would I change anything? Not really.”

 

A Lad From Donkey Common: A Rugby League Life, by Austin Rhodes, is available now. ISBN 9781903659649, published by London League Publications. Buy now and save on the cover price.

This review originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Forty-20 magazine.

REVIEW: Robbie Rugby Warrior: The Autobiography, by Robbie Hunter-Paul

Robbie Hunter-Paul was always a little different. Part of his appeal was that you never knew – and often got the impression he didn’t either – what was coming next. In an era when Super League was establishing itself and part-time players were getting used to life as full-time professionals, Robbie was the fast-talking, hot-footed star who always did something, anything, to catch the eye.

Robbie Rugby Warrior follows the same mould. Not content with a traditional autobiography, the former Bradford scrum-half has, at the end of each chapter, included his guide to life as a professional athlete. Whether it’s a concept that works is going to differ from reader to reader. Younger readers, perhaps still dreaming of their own rugby league careers, will soak it up. Older readers might be forgiven for skipping to the start of the next chapter, where it’s back to the rugby and life as one of the sport’s leading figures.

And it’s there, in the thick of the action, where Robbie Rugby Warrior comes into its own. Hunter-Paul, or plain old simple Paul as he was back then, starts with a bang: the moment he claimed his place in rugby league history as the first man to score three tries in a Wembley Challenge Cup final.

“Get it down, just get the thing down. Brain’s whirring. I’m at full tilt. It’s for the hat-trick, I know that… I’m nearly there. Rather than slide and get grass burns, I roll. It’s as I come up, fist pumping, that it hits me with a blinding force. A wall of 30,000 Bradford Bulls fans losing their minds… for that one fleeting, glorious moment, I knew just how it felt to be a rock star.”

Hunter-Paul worked tirelessly with ghostwriter Chris Irvine of The Times to produce a book that is both energetic and considered. He had his scrapes, which he talks about in detail, but he will be remembered as Super League’s leading light during its formative years.

There are touching moments too, with a tale involving Bernard Dwyer highlighting Bradford’s determination to succeed at all costs. Dwyer had already injured one arm, before things got particularly difficult.

“He went into a tackle and tore the other bicep. Both his arms hung limp, but like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there was a staunch refusal in him to give up. Matty Elliott showed us the footage the following day… (he) put the video in slow motion mode, which showed the moment Bernard tore his other bicep. ‘Watch what he does,’ Matty said. ‘He gets back and launches at them with his head. The guy’s career has finished in that moment, but he didn’t come off until we got the ball back.’ For everyone who witnessed that footage it became the stuff of legend.”

This isn’t a Sean Long-style confessional, but it’s far from dry and there are plenty of hidden secrets, some of them dark, that Hunter-Paul does reveal. Robbie Rugby Warrior is a worthy addition to any rugby league bookshelf.

Robbie Rugby Warrior: The Autobiography, by Robbie Hunter-Paul, is available now. ISBN 978-1905080106, published by Great Northern Books. Buy now and save on the cover price. Kindle Edition also available by clicking here.

REVIEW: Three Fartown Aussies: Hunter, Cooper, Devery, by David Gronow

His open-necked shirts, ripped jeans and leather jacket have made Nathan Brown one of the most recognisable Super League coaches. But the quotable Australian, who is the overseas recruit to have had perhaps the single biggest impact on Huddersfield during the summer era, is just the latest in a long line of Aussie imports to the club they used to call Fartown.

Club historian David Gronow’s latest book on the Giants, Three Fartown Aussies: Hunter, Cooper, Devery, celebrates the contribution made by those men who used to travel to the north of England seeking fame and fortune.

Winger Lionel Cooper would only sign for an English club if he could bring a friend to help him settle into life in the UK. Plenty of clubs were keen on Cooper, but few were willing to risk funding another Aussie – the relatively unknown Johnny Hunter – until Huddersfield took a punt on the Antipodean duo.

And along with Pat Devery, a man who was to become the club’s captain, they formed the most formidable trio in Fartown’s all-conquering team of the late 1940s and early 1950s. [Read more…]