Whistle-Blower Edition: The Truth behind the Dragons and NRL

There’s been a fair amount of whistle-blowing in sport lately, in all senses of the word. (See what I did there?) What with drugs of all varieties, bribery, corruption, players passing out and ploughing into parked cars, not to mention the small issue of Qatar hosting a world cup when their average temp for July is 75 degrees C*. (Nothing sus going on there. AT ALL.)

What I’m about to tell you shrinks all of these into insignificance. Let’s not kid ourselves, I am not a sportsologist of any kind. (That’s the right term, yeah?) But I feel the need to share a piece of inside information with NRL fans, specifically fans of the St George Illawarra Dragons. There are a lot of sad Dragons fans out there at the moment. I know because I live with one and I also live in the Illawarra, so I see a lot of fans in Dragons jerseys openly sobbing while they go about their day-to-day activities. Another tell-tale sign is the scoreboard. This afternoon the Dragons got beaten 36 nil. I’m pretty sure even I could manage a better score than that. (This is not meant to be derogatory to the Dragons because I am a woman**, but rather because my #1 objective on the sporting field is to keep as much distance as possible between myself and a ball.) In fact, considering the fact that last week they were beaten 38 to 6, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NRL introduced participation certificates specifically for the Dragons, or perhaps started a new arm of competition where no points are recorded and everyone’s a winner by virtue of the fact they had a go. Perhaps this is all a little harsh and mean-spirited, like I said I’m no expert. Perhaps this is part of a long-term strategy in which the Dragons bore their opponents into a semi comatose state, at which point they – the Dragons – then score some points. Any points really would be an improvement.images-1

Problem is they are experts. They are paid for this stuff.

So here’s the inside scoop, folks. I have observed the Dragons training and even I, with little to no knowledge of Rugby League, can identify exactly where they are going wrong.

My insights come from spending time at the gym, the same gym as the Dragons frequent. (This was not by design on my part, but I doubt many young ladies who patronise the said gym could say the same.) My time observing the Dragons started out fairly positively, one would oft sight them all lined up on the exercise bikes, peddling away whilst a fellow with a clipboard helped them out by setting the resistance and timer and what not. Sometimes they would have a go in the pool, each with their team’s name proudly displayed across their rear; for safety purposes I presume,  if should one be found wandering, confused and lost by the tennis courts, they could be identified and returned to the fellows with the clipboards and whistles. They put on the show one would expect from professional sportsmen, had all the right gear etc.

But then one day I witnessed something distressing. Was it Josh Dugan getting stuck in the turnstile? No, although I did witness this and it’s fair to say it was more amusing than distressing. No, dear reader, one day I was heading across to the gym, passing some shrubbery when, what should I spy there amongst the bushes? Two Dragons, in full regalia, puffing away on sneaky durries like a couple of year nines behind the Science block at recess. I thought I was seeing things. For months I told myself that the gents responsible for a large portion of the Illawarra’s collective mental health would never spend money paid to them to PLAY SPORT on cigarettes and then smoke said cigarettes during training. But then just last week I spotted a Dragon there amongst the trees by the oval, having a little rest, a little breather. Perhaps finding inspiration in nature or contemplating the more meditative aspects of maneuvering a ball around the field for cash. Unfortunately, as I neared, the plumes of smoke around his head area signalled that while he was taking a breather, it wasn’t air he was focused on breathing.

That information is shocking I know. Take a moment to process that mental image while I feed you another truth nugget: THE DRAGONS ARE AFRAID OF RAIN. Yes, just days after the second smoking sighting, as I was making my way from the gym to the car park, I was caught in a bit of a downpour – as is quite common in this temperate region (FIFA, take note.) Also caught in the downpour, mid-training session, were the poor Dragons. Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen NRL players in the rain before, carrying on with the game in the mud like gallant soldiers at the Somme. Not these ones. No, these ones had fled the field and were cowering, bone dry, under a small awning. They weren’t even puffing in any sense of the word. It was as if they had been taking only a brief turn around the grounds in the manner of Elizabeth Bennet or similar. Granted, Benji wasn’t there. And we all know he isn’t afraid of anything. But even the most talented player is rendered useless if all his teammates have fled the field for fear of messing up their hair.

So all I can say, Dragons fans, is if you thought these last two weeks were bad, heaven help you if it should rain.

*Rough estimate

**Some women are kick-arse at League, I know one, she’s a size 8 but could put most men to shame with her tackling skills.

Up in smoke

I’ve never even held a cigarette, let alone smoked one. It’s not because I think smokers are a filthy subset of humans that deserve to be vilified for their choice. I don’t. Instead, I’m just plain scared. I watched someone I loved very much die from the effects of passive smoking. She, like me, never smoked a cigarette herself, but her father smoked constantly and it killed her in the end. As a warning, it worked like a trick on me.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I have another manuscript on which I have been working off and on now for the last seven years. I’m revisiting it now for the umpteenth time because it looks likely to become my second published novel. As I started reading it over again, I ran hot and cold – not totally convinced it was salvageable. That was until I got to the point where a certain character shows up, a character who is by far my favourite of any of the fictional people I’ve given life to. I’m not one to usually go blowing my own trumpet, but man, I just love this guy. He’s cheeky and funny with a beautiful soul and I think I adore him too much to let him gather dust in my bottom drawer. He needs to be read.

There is one problem, though: he smokes.

Back in those beautiful, carefree days when I thought it unlikely that anyone else would ever read this story – let alone publish it – I created him without really caring about the implications of a teenage character with a penchant for rollies. In fact, you might even be wondering why it matters if he likes a puff. The kicker is, it’s a story aimed (surprise, surprise) at a YA market. And children’s and YA occupies some murky territory when it comes to ethics. It’s not cool anymore to write a storybook about a cheery frog who likes the odd durry. Even if you make it super clear it’s not the cigs that make him happy. Let’s be clear, kiddies: SMOKING WILL KILL YOU. Even if you are a jolly frog.

So why create a character who smokes?

Well, in reality, there are teenagers who smoke. And I believe it is a writer’s job to engage with and reflect reality. In many ways the fact that my beloved character (let’s call him Ole’ Smokey) indulges in the odd cigarette is a neat shorthand for describing an aspect of his character. He’s the kid who wags, the one with the one-liners that crack up a class and leave teachers red-faced, of course he smokes. Oh dear, I came dangerously close there to saying that he’s ‘cool’ therefore he smokes. Again, kids: IT’S HARD TO BE COOL WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.

It’s more subtle than that. Ole Smokey is complex. Despite his hijinks, he’s a people pleaser and the people he wants to please are his peers. The fact that he smokes actually shows a fault line, he wants people to think he’s a particular type of teenager. He doesn’t really even like cigarettes, he has a coughing fit every time, but he wants to be seen as mad, bad and dangerous to know. At it’s core, this story is about the yearning for acceptance, so the fact that Ole’ Smokey smokes because he cares about what others will think of him is crucial.

I read John Green’s brilliant The Fault in Our Stars recently, only to discover that Green has a genius solution to this particular problem. His character, Augustus, likes a cigarette as well. He just never lights them. Which makes it a genius idea that has been done before and which I can absolutely not pilfer.

By writing a character who smokes, am I perhaps perpetuating the ideology that makes kids like Ole’ Smokey light up in the first place? This theory assumes that my readers are passive, monkey-see, monkey-do creatures. It sells them short. It denies them the scope to engage with the context.

Perhaps that’s where the answer to this conundrum lies: in the context. But I’m not convinced that parents, teachers and librarians will see it that way…