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Scrummy! New novels put the romance into rugby

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JILL LAWLESS | January 27, 2009 01:51 PM EST | AP

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LONDON — Romance and rugby _ strange bedfellows or perfect match?

Publisher Mills & Boon is betting that nothing goes with champagne and diamonds like the bone-crunching, mud-churning wallop of a rugby match. The romance imprint has teamed up with rugby's British governing body for a series of novels in which gorgeous women fall for athletic alpha males adept at making passes.

There's even sex at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.

"It's good, clean fun," said Jenny Hutton, editor of the eight-book series, which was launched Tuesday. "Women go to sport and watch it for the technical qualities of the game _ but there's no denying there are quite attractive men running around on the pitch."

The deal offers something for both sides. The publisher gets a ready-made milieu of sweat-soaked men and glamorous settings, from Italy and France to Argentina.

For Rugby Football Union marketing manager Jane Barron, the books _ emblazoned with the red rose symbol of the England rugby team over images of clinching couples _ are "a fantastic way to encourage more women and their families to get involved with the game."

Publishing and professional sports have dallied before. In 2005, Mills & Boon's parent company Harlequin Enterprises launched a NASCAR auto-racing themed series of romances with titles like "In the Groove" and "Peak Performance." Its success inspired the rugby series, which will be published around the world.

Hutton says readers will find the "passion and glamour" they expect from a Mills & Boon novel. But the books also are packaged with a "girl's guide to rugby" offering definitions of scrum, ruck, maul and other rugby terms.

The series' first book is "The Prince's Waitress Wife," published Feb. 1: "When virgin waitress Holly is thrown into the playboy prince's arms he lives up to his wicked reputation by bedding her _ then casting her aside," the jacket reads.

Future novels include "The French Tycoon's Pregnant Mistress," "The Ruthless Billionaire's Virgin" and "The Italian Count's Defiant Bride."

As the titles suggest, these guys are no ordinary athletes. One is a Middle Eastern sheik, another a Greek hotel magnate. Full-time athletes, Hutton admits, tend to be too single-minded to make ideal lovers.

"We didn't want all the heroes to be rugby players _ we needed heroes who could devote their time to the heroines," she said.

The heroes _ described by the publisher as "red-hot and ruthless" _ initially need taming. The reader's heart goes out to Holly, heroine of "The Prince's Waitress Wife," for the letdown after her passionate encounter with brooding Prince Caspar:

"To Holly it was the single most intimate moment of her life, and when he opened his mouth to speak, her heart softened.

"'The match has started,' he drawled flatly. 'Thanks to you, I've missed kickoff.'"

The series offers something of an image-makeover for rugby players, often regarded as hulking, beer-quaffing behemoths.

"When you say rugby players to people, they fall into two camps _ the kind who picture really beefy prop forwards with 40-inch necks, and those who imagine wingers, agile and built for speed. That's where my imagination lies," said Mills & Boon novelist India Grey _ the pen name of a 38-year-old mother of three from central England.

Grey's novel for the series, "At the Argentinean Billionaire's Bidding," gave her a chance to combine her passions for rugby and romance writing. Her book sees rugby-mad Tasmin fall for "ex-Argentine rugby player and self-made billionaire" Alejandro, who is _ naturally _ a "brooding diamond in the rough."

"I grew up in a rugby family, so all my early crushes were on rugby players," said Grey. "I wanted to write a novel from the age of 13, and the first book I wrote on my school exercise book had a rugby-playing hero.

"For me they are a real hero archetype. It's such a hard game, a modern-day equivalent of arm-to-arm combat. It has genuine physical risk. And the team aspect is quite heroic _ there's that sort of integrity and spirit."

While Britain's soccer players regularly make tabloid headlines through drunken antics and celebrity-wannabe girlfriends, rugby's drama usually stays on the field.

The sport has recently threatened to become more glamorous, thanks to players like Danny Cipriani, boyfriend of TV personality Kelly Brook, and Mike Tindall, who is dating Zara Phillips, granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

But there's no rugby equivalent of metrosexual fashion-plate David Beckham _ and that's just the way writers like Grey like it.

"I don't think it would work with football (soccer) because of the image football (soccer) has," she said. "Anything where the heroes are made into celebrities in their own right, where it has that gloss _ that won't work."

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On the Net:

Mills & Boon: http://www.millsandboon.co.uk

Rugby Football Union: http://www.rfu.com