Book review: ‘The Chosen 23’

The product of a challenge by his son to name the best players he has seen since 1992, ‘The Chosen 23’ is author Mark Keohane’s 150-page answer.

READ: How the idea for ‘The Chosen 23’ was formed

In the book he takes readers through a rugby line up and picks a Dream Springbok and World XV (complete with coaches and a referee!) for a theoretical showdown. Each chapter is devoted to a different position and the legends who have played in it.

The author sets out his stall early and clarifies how his selections are determined. He defines the ‘best’ players as the ones that have ‘made the greatest impression’ on him individually. With this as his metric, Keohane taps into one of the absolute truths in rugby: it’s about how it makes us feel!

In a game that can at times be dulled by too much statistical analysis: running meters, dominant tackles, lineout percentages, ruck success etc. etc. it is refreshing to read a book that strips all that away to focus on the pure emotional impact of the players.

The Chosen 23 is a tapestry of stories from rugby over the past thirty years; Keohane seamlessly interweaves these snapshots to create a compelling narrative – one that chronicles how rugby (and the men that play it) have changed in that time.

In a moment the author takes us from accounts of Japie Mulder’s battles with All Black Frank Bunce (which involved many a clandestine punch in the ruck!) to Eddie Jones’s effusive praise for JP Pietersen’s positional play and game management. A comparison emblematic of how the game has developed since professionalism with an increasing technical focus.

There are no shortage of contentious selections by Keohane and the book is sure to stir the pot. However, as the author reminds us: ‘Age tends to dumb down the memory and numb the senses. Out of sight is out of mind’. As rugby fans we have a tendency to be obsessed by the latest and greatest superstar, but The Chosen 23 serves as a timely reminder of the recognition we owe past players.

At the end of each chapter Keohane has selected excerpts from fan reactions to his selections (taken from SA Rugby Magazine’s Facebook page). It takes a brave man to wade through internet comment sections in search of meaningful opinions; and for that alone he deserves plaudits!

The contrasting opinions presented at the end of the chapters serve to frame the debate but also demonstrate the author’s self-awareness: when it comes to rugby, everyone has the right to their own view and no one can make claim to being correct. Not even professional journalists!

The Chosen 23 is written with an abundance of wit and humour (and more than a few barbs thrown in for good measure). I found myself inadvertently smiling while reading it, and it’s easy to imagine Keohane with a schoolboy smirk on his face while writing it too. It’s clear that it comes from a place of deep affection – for the players and for the game.

The book is rich in anecdote, as you might expect from an author who has been at rugby’s coalface for so long. It reads as much as a tribute to the finest in the game as it does as an appraisal of how good they were.

What really stands out, though, is Keohane’s ability to paint a picture of the person behind the player. Readers are left feeling as though they truly know these men they may never have even met; and therein lies the real charm of The Chosen 23.

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Post by

Craig Lewis