John Daniell's 2007 memoir gives the inside track on life as a professional rugby player in France, and after two years doing the rounds, it has finally found a publisher in Britain. We cast an un-gouged eye over it...
Truly gripping rugby autobiographies are about as rare as exciting home performances at Stade Pierre-Rajon. Big-name memoirs come in two flavours - embittered ex-stars sharing after-dinner tales and their thoughts on what's wrong with today's game, or shooting stars too young to have written much more than essays revealing little more than their team-mates' unimaginative nicknames. And all ghost-written to a pulp, of course.
But just as the supporting players in other sports - football's Garry Nelson, cycling's Paul Kimmage and cricket's Simon Hughes - have stood out from the quick-buck pack with their award-winning bestsellers, so John Daniell, one of rugby's first have-boots-will-travel professionals, offers an original and overdue insight into the professional game in his book Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary (originally published in 2007 as Inside French Rugby: Confessions of a Kiwi Mercenary).
New Zealander Daniell crossed the globe from Wellington to Paris when Rugby Union went professional in 1996, and played out the rest of the career in the French Leagues, staying at Racing Club until 2000 before moving south to Perpignan until 2003 and helping Montpellier retain their top-flight status until his retirement in 2006.
Confessions.. is the match-by-match story of Daniell's last season as a lock in professional rugby. Each chapter takes us to a new venue, which he uses as a springboard to discuss different aspects of the French game. A trip to Bourgoin sparks a discussion of violence in French rugby (including an eye-watering description of what its like to gouge and be gouged), a televised match at Stade Francais acts as an in to Max Guazzini's razzamatazz rugby, while a game in Biarritz lets corruption - or at least rumours of dodgy dealings - raise its head.
The stand-out chapter - at least as far as the exposé-hunters are concerned - comes with Montpellier's visit to Daniell's former club Perpignan. Effectively pensioned off by the Catalan club three years earlier, the author discusses the ruthless regime of club president Marcel Dagrenat, an unashamed businessman who has more interest in the balance sheet than in the USAP scoresheet.
Of anyone namechecked in the book it's Dagrenat that comes off worst - specifically because of his treatment of injured Australian signing Daniel Herbert - and even though Daniell clearly has an axe to grind, it's obvious that regardless of the club, 'Monsieur le President' is still the most powerful man in the French game.
The book is littered with tales - true and apocryphal - of French rugby, but even if you already know about the fabled 'Esprit du Clocher', the violent sport of soule or the southern hostility towards the Paris showbiz set, stories of double-dealing agents, cynical sponsorship deals, team-mates who'd touchingly offer to take a punch for you, relations between the game's increasingly foreign legion, and the year-to-year life of the rugby mercenary will cast new light on the professional game in France and further afield.
With plenty of humourous anecdotes thrown in to lighten the serious points he makes, Daniell himself comes across more likeable than the self-styled 'mercenary' tag would suggest, and it's easy to sympathise with him during a final season in which he spends as much time on the bench and in the treatment room as he does on the pitch. As he contemplates retirement towards the end of the season, you almost will him to play on so that he can enjoy a full final season rather than the frustrating year he chronicles.
What is disappointing is that until recently, this New Zealand-published book wasn't generally available in the UK's bookshops. Fortunately, and presumably with half an eye on the English exodus over the Channel, Ebury Press has picked it up and you can now buy it on Amazon for under £6 - a bargain for a readable and fascinating sports autobiography.
Buy Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary from Amazon for £5.99