Hey Joe: Catalyst, a rugby caper

It’s a difficult one, sports fiction, trying to weave the hurly-burly of games like rugby or football into the plot of a novel. Mind you, there’s no shortage of thrills in sport, so it should be no surprise that many writers have given the weaving a go.

Roberto Rabaiotti is one of the latest to try his hand at it, and he’s chosen to set his rugby thriller “Catalyst” in late 70s Pontypridd. And as a thriller it works remarkably well. There’s certainly no shortage of suspense, tragedy and comedy in what is a very absorbing read. The characters, from the teenagers to the rugby club committee men, are instantly recognisable to anyone who has lived in South Wales in recent decades.

There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required in approaching the outrageous central premise of the plot: I won’t spoil it for you, but it involves killing on a very public stage. But in spite of this, the central characters of Joe, the passionate Italian teenage rugby sensation, and his girlfriend Sue, whose life has already been touched by profound sadness, are deeply compelling and you’re bound to feel a great deal of empathy for them on their romantic, emotional journey.

You do get the sense that some artefacts have been juxtaposed back into the 70s from recent times, for example the England rugby captain who bears an uncanny similarity to a certain W Carling Esq., who is married to a pop star called Vicki Adams (Posh Spice, anyone?), and certain transatlantic phrases such as “He’s not all that,” which I’m sure weren’t in common usage in South Wales when I were a lad in the 70s.

No matter though: this is a thriller, not an historical text. One word which sprung to mind early on was, “hokum,” but there are many deft touches and the characters have been sketched out with a great deal of care. Joe’s feckless, puerile friends; the blazer-ed Ponty chairman; the rugby hack Dewi Griffiths, and at the heart of it, Joe and Sue, the young lovers. These are all clever creations which lend substance to the piece. I’m still trying to work out who Dewi Griffiths is based on, though.

It’s a story which would work well on the screen, and as a piece it strongly evokes memories of South Wales in the 70s. I’m not sure what Will Carling would make of it, mind.

Catalyst, by Roberto Rabaiotti, is published by Grosvenor House.