by Brendan Cowell
Early in Brendan Cowell’s latest novel, Plum, the scales fall from the eyes of his protagonist, a 49-year-old ex-rugby league player named Peter Lum.
As ‘Plum’ watches his teenage son take a swinging arm to the head during an Under-20 grand final at Parramatta’s Bankwest Stadium, the game he loves is transformed into a ‘carnival of carnage’. The ruck, where Plum staked his reputation as a powerful lock forward, becomes a ‘theatre of damage’. The violence, which previously ‘made a man feel alive’, is ‘all ominous now.’
At first glance, this passage might confirm rugby league’s status as Australia’s boofhead game. As author and league fan Thomas Keneally once told journalist Roy Masters: ‘The conventional view from high culture is that you only meet working-class thuggery in rugby league.’
To write a novel with rugby league and poetry as its anchors, then, is to invite incredulity – something Cowell knew before he began. ‘I was in a number of conversations… and I said, “who’s the last guy in Australia to have poetry rescue him, and to actually discover a true talent for poetry?”,’ Cowell explained to Double J host Zan Rowe. The answer, of course, is a rugby league player, those irredeemable athletes that journalist Mike Carlton sneeringly calls ‘the thickest, stupidest sports people in Australia.’
In Peter ‘the Plum’ Lum, a man with a ‘brute’s face’ and a ‘gentle aura’, Cowell draws the quintessential ’80s rugby league man. Despite his status as a local Cronulla legend, Plum lives in a small weatherboard home and works a ‘mindless and physical’ job as an aircraft tug driver.
The book opens with Plum’s brain failing him on three occasions: first at a Cronulla Sharks corporate event, next on a soft sand run along the beach, then on the tarmac as he suffers a seizure and nearly pulls an Airbus A330 into another passenger plane.
We soon learn that Plum has a degenerative brain disorder, the result of too many head knocks and concussions on the rugby league field. In part, this can be attributed to the ‘never take a backwards step’ credo that Plum was taught by his ‘more bad than good’ alcoholic father, Albert.
Plum believes fathers have a duty to their kids, yet when his son Gavin cops the high shot, he storms out of Bankwest Stadium and heads to the pub. Instead of watching Gavin soldier on to win man of the match, Plum winds up sinking beers in a tiki bar with Charles Bukowski, who suggests Plum read Ham on Rye about his own abusive father. This is Plum’s first of several encounters with famous, long-dead authors as he makes a gradual transition from player to poet. It is also a perfectly-timed hip and shoulder from Cowell to the unspoken Australian tradition that rugby league and literature should not mix.
In a recent podcast interview with The Baby Boomers’ Guide to Life in the 21st Century, Thomas Keneally recalled growing up in an Australia bereft of literature but proud of its athletic prowess. ‘I did play rugby league just in case I couldn’t be a writer,’ he quipped. The line was delivered in jest but it drew laughs because of the widely accepted demarcation between the intellectual and the physical.
Keneally is one of few celebrated men of letters to go public with his devotion to rugby league. He even recited a poem for the television promo for the 1999 National Rugby League season. ‘Blow that whistle, ref’ didn’t have the raw energy or realism of Chumbawamba’s I get knocked down, but I get up again/you’re never going to keep me down – which had soundtracked the NRL the season prior – but it did point to a possible literary turn in the game’s evolution.
That year, in a paper for the Football Studies journal, Australian cultural historian and Canberra Raiders fan David Headon labelled scholars of rugby league ‘an oxymoronic group’ and argued that the game ‘is perhaps more poorly served by its scholars and bards and literary aficionados than almost any other sport.’
At the time, my father, Steven Herrick, was a Brisbane Broncos fan who worked as a performance poet. Now known for his Young Adult verse novels, Dad’s back catalogue includes several poems and other tributes to rugby league. The cover of one of his first books has a picture of me as a kid holding a football. Inside, the dedication is to the famous length-of-the-field try scored by Broncos legend Steve Renouf in the 1992 Winfield Cup grand final.
In an earlier poem, Dad writes of players being ‘punched’ and ‘smashed’ at a rugby league game. Violence pervades the scene – ‘Neck and neck on the field, head to fist in the stand’ – as he realises that ‘I don’t belong where men are men/I’ll never go down to the football again’.
It may be that rugby league’s brutality has repelled rather than inspired writers and artists. In a short diatribe against the game, Melbourne playwright Barry Dickins wrote: ‘Rugby League seems entirely without poetry to me. The chaps always crash into each other, bend one another’s will and arms, collide and crash, injure and torment’. Yet violence is no barrier to literary interest in sport. Arthur Conan Doyle, Norman Mailer and The New Yorker editor David Remnick have all written evocatively about boxing, while Dickins is an out-and-proud devotee of Australian Rules football, Victoria’s own body contact sport.
Still, 2021 might be considered a breakthrough year for rugby league literature. Plum was one of two novels to grapple with the game’s role in Australian life.
The Magpie Wing, Max Easton’s debut novel, is a coming-of-age story about three working-class kids from Sydney’s southwest. As siblings Walt and Helen Coleman leave Lurnea to join the underground bands and mouldering share houses of Sydney’s inner-west, and Duncan Galea becomes a salaried homeowner in unfashionable Ashfield, rugby league provides them with an enduring connection.The Magpie Wing is a much darker book than Plum, with edgier, grungier characters. It is set between Sydney’s industrial inner-west and sprawling south-west, while Plum is virtually locked into the sunny, ‘insular peninsula’ of Cronulla.
Both books, then, are unashamedly about working-class lives in suburban Sydney. By binding their characters to rugby league, Easton and Cowell faithfully express the lives of millions of Sydneysiders as they really are.
The Magpie Wing begins in 1996 with the Coleman and Galea families meeting on the hill at a Western Suburbs Magpies game at Campbelltown Oval. Later, as the families return to the Coleman household, George Galea suggests that eight-year-old Walt should play rugby league with his son Duncan at the Liverpool Catholic Club Raiders.
When Walt’s mother protests that he is too small, George assures her there are rules to make the game safe for children. ‘It’s not like it is on TV,’ he says.
For Easton, violence is political. Walt sees Tommy Raudonikis as a working-class hero who, along with his Wests teammates, resorted to violence to ‘upset the wealthier opposition’. And as Walt discovers the loathing for league among his peers in Sydney’s music scene, he argues that punk music, anarchism and rugby league all demonstrate ‘a need to take power from the ruling class by force’.
Like Cowell, Easton explores the intersection between physical prowess, violence and love. George, the coach of the Liverpool Catholic Club Raiders, tells his son Duncan, a big second-rower, to protect his new friend Walt, who is a diminutive halfback. As Duncan grows into a tough forward who plays through injury and always with ‘half an eye on whoever was about to steamroll his friend’, Walt develops into a skillful half with ‘soft hands, an accurate boot, a deft swerve, and a sharp step’. These roles – Walt the creator and Duncan the destroyer – come to define the relationship between the two boys, as Walt allows Duncan make ‘a dozen or so tackles that should have been Walt’s to make,’ because ‘that’s what forwards are for’.
In Plum, Peter Lum is the brave and brutal forward who might have been the protector to his son Gavin, a lanky five-eighth, if they were the same age. But Plum, now retired and aware that his own playing days caused his brain injury, can only watch as his son navigates his way around the field and through the grades.
Though it is fiction, Plum is an early and starkly powerful commentary on the concussion crisis that looms as an existential threat to body contact sports such as rugby league.
In 2019, Dr Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American physician who identified the disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), told the Sydney Morning Herald that ‘in the next generation or two’ contact sports such as rugby league will cease to exist. He was speaking to the Herald after revelations that former rugby league player Steve Folkes died with the brain disease. Folkes, a tough, uncompromising forward, was the first known case of CTE in Australian rugby league.
If Dr Omalu’s prediction sounds extreme, consider the carnage of the 2021 NRL season. Two players – both in their late twenties, both at the peak of their careers – were medically retired due to the effects of repeated concussions. One of them, Boyd Cordner, was the Australian captain. His cousin, nineteen-year-old Joel Dark, had died just nine months prior after a head knock received while playing in a lower grade match in Newcastle.
The concussion crisis is a ticking time bomb for rugby league because the research suggests that CTE is caused just as much by ‘sub-concussive’ blows as it is by knockout hits, and because it can only be diagnosed in the brains of the deceased. In other words, every bump or glancing blow could be contributing to a degenerative brain disease.
The problem becomes existential for rugby league because, as Dr Omalu observes, ‘in every play there is a blow or impact to the head.’
In this regard, the rules and protocols brought in by the NRL over the past five years to address the issue seem to be more about protecting the organisation from a class action lawsuit than the players from head trauma. Besides, the industry itself still seems wedded to an idea expressed by Plum: ‘what’s the big deal with a bit of a jolt.’ There are many players currently working in the NRL who will happily repeat Plum’s assertion that ‘rugby league gave me everything’, even if, like Plum, they have no answer to the question, did it take anything away?
Indeed, a study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found ‘one in five’ NRL players tried to hide concussions from team doctors to avoid being taken off under the league’s Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocols. And last season there were entire months lost to controversy over the NRL’s crackdown on high tackles. ‘Weekend from hell shows new rule has broken footy,’ screamed one headline as a record number of players were sin binned for high shots.
There is, perhaps, a willful ignorance of the tidal wave that is about to crash over rugby league as more cases of CTE are inevitably found in the brains of dead footballers. Because if the industry was truly to acknowledge that sub-concussive blows can cause brain disease, it would be hard to disagree with Plum’s conclusion: ‘Forget professional sport, the damage was done before then … this should not be legal.’
In the years to come, we may look back on 2021 as the beginning of rugby league’s reckoning with violence and its attendant trauma. In Plum, Cowell has written a book for this cultural moment, addressing the hidden cost of the hyper-masculine culture that sustains rugby league.
Brendan Cowell is an award-winning actor and novelist who, on any given winter weekend, will flick through hours of the greatest game on Channel Nine and Fox League. In 2021, he was one member of a regular radio show called ‘Crunch Time NRL’ and penned a poem for the recently-retired Boyd Cordner (‘Noggin’ took a hit, staggering around, can’t see/Fingers crossed no CTE’).
Plum is not, then, a diatribe or a polemic against rugby league. Cowell deftly writes about the game and the ‘little children hiding out in Goliath’s scaffolding’ who play it, never shying away from the consequences of the violence inherent in the game. He draws blisteringly true characters who burn their savings on ‘the idiot’s pinball’, call greyhounds on the television a ‘prick of a cunt’ for running too slowly around the track, and delight in ‘hilarious phrases of Aussie violence.’
Most of the characters in Plum are recovering from some kind of body trauma. Plum’s partner, Charmayne, was a cheerleader before a snapped Achilles heel forced her into a succession of new careers. His first female friend, Bridget, is a wheelchair-bound, 29-year-old Englishwoman who hands Plum a notebook and writes a poem for him titled ‘Thugs have feelings too’. Plum’s best mates Brick, Squeaky and Magic Matt – who share a WhatsApp group and ownership of a racehorse – are all retired professional athletes suffering from post-career injuries and inertia.
This cast of characters allows Cowell to reinforce his point about the lasting physical toll of professional sport. As Magic Matt recovers from a hip operation, former jockey Squeaky contemplates his own damaged body, the result of too much time in the saddle. ‘It’s not the big falls, it’s the little jolts,’ he says, echoing the message neurologists have been telling us about ‘sub-concussive blows’ and brain injuries.
This is a book written just as much for rugby league people as it is about them. Cowell vividly creates a world where league sits in its rightful place alongside television, pubs, poker machines, betting apps, racehorses and boxing gyms. The character of Chloe, a young Polynesian girl who Plum trains at Woolooware Oval, is a nod to the game’s two major growth areas, women and Pasifika communities. Rugby league vernacular, such as ‘play the ball’ and ‘blindside’, enlivens Cowell’s prose throughout.
Cowell’s deep respect for the game and its heroes is evident in his passages on Plum’s seizures, which are informed by in-depth interviews with rugby league legend Andrew Johns and neurologist Professor Chris Levi. Concussions are described as a ‘return to innocence’ and the resultant seizures as the ‘snowstorm’ and the ‘cicadas’ in Plum’s head. These ‘brain episodes’ also serve as a literary device for Plum to plausibly rendezvous with Charles Bukowski and Sylvia Plath and Jack Kerouac and Emily Dickinson.
In this way, Cowell draws a straight line between the brutality of rugby league and the beauty of poetry. Even as Plum prepares to read his poem about head knocks at an open-mic night, he pulls his old New South Wales rep footy jumper over his head and employs rugby league psychology to steel his nerves. This has always been me, Plum thinks to himself, before repeating his father’s mantra – ‘never take a backwards step’ – and pushing onto the stage.
And that, in the end, is the power of Plum, a book that runs through the wall between sport and art to demand that league and literature belong together.
David Headon, ‘Up From the Ashes: The Phoenix of a Rugby League Literature’, Football Studies Volume 2, Issue 2. Football Studies Group. Retrieved 7 July 2009.