When Tom and his family first move from Mumbilli to Coghill, Tom's initial goal is to remain as anonymous as possible and avoid making too many connections. He's unsure if he even wants to keep playing rugby now that Daniel is in jail, as he's convinced that playing won't be the same without his older brother beside him. As Tom begins to integrate in his new home, however, and chooses to be involved with the rugby team at Bennie's, his new school, he begins to discover that there's actually a lot to gain from allowing himself to form connections with other young men in Coghill. By showing how Tom's evolving understanding of friendship and what it means to be a part of a team intersect with and inform each other, the novel ultimately suggests that it's impossible to be a true team without trust, caring, and most importantly, genuine understanding.
Tom is very clear about the fact that when he attended Saint John's in Mumbilli, the rugby team was obsessed only with winning—something they did regularly. However, as he spends more time in Coghill in a very different environment, he also begins to recognize that the tenor of the team and the relationships between teammates in Mumbilli was fundamentally flawed in a number of ways. First, Tom begins to understand that the environment fostered by the team's focus on winning above all else corrupted his and others' love of the game, as well as their friendships with each other. He notes at one point that when Saint John's did lose games, the younger players in particular were terrified of the abuse they knew they'd suffer as a result. Tom sees this as proof that the team stopped caring about each other's wellbeing—in other words, the teammates weren't actually friends anymore. He also sees this happen when the only other teammate who will continue spending time with him after the accident is his best friend, Matt.
This ruthless, selfish attitude no doubt influenced and was influenced by the fact that some players at St. John’s also stopped genuinely caring about the game itself. At one point, Tom tells Kylie that Daniel and two other players, Owen and Luke, were spending so much time drinking and then playing hung over that the team was playing with only twelve engaged players, not the full fifteen actually on the field. As a result, St. John's began losing—underscoring the importance of friendship and mutual dedication to a well-functioning team.
Coming from the environment at St. John's, Tom at first finds the boys at Bennie's to be a sorry excuse for a team. The St. John's team used to joke that Bennie's was so bad, they "couldn't even catch a cold," and Tom is initially derisive when he observes that despite the Bennie's team's poor playing, they do genuinely enjoy rugby and are actually friends with each other. Tom's attitude doesn't change until the Bennie's team goes to "footie" camp, which is a week away to both train and participate in team-building exercises.
Tom begins the week unengaged and believing that the camp won't do any good for the team, but after Dad pulls him aside and suggests that maybe Bennie's has it right in its prioritization of teamwork and the love of the game, Tom begins to shift his thinking. When Tom finally lets his guard down and begins making friends with the other players, he finds that the team also begins to play better—again bolstering the notion that mutual care and understanding are essential components of successful teamwork. Tom discovers that the Bennie's boys do actually want to learn what he has to teach them about the sport and are happy to accept his leadership; in return, they offer him friendship and support that he hadn't experienced before, either in a rugby setting or elsewhere.
Though his feelings begin to shift at camp, Tom doesn't truly make the leap to prioritizing friendship and teamwork over winning until Bennie's plays St. John's in July. Bennie's loses narrowly, but when an unknown St. John's player yells "killer" at Tom (in reference to Daniel’s accident), the Bennie's team throws themselves into the game to support him. This moment reinforces for Tom that while he enjoyed winning when he played for St. John's, the camaraderie was never actually there—and further, it never could be in the absence of meaningful relationships among the players.
Time and again Tom's new friends in Coghill show care for him and his wellbeing in ways that he never imagined possible in Mumbilli, where many of his teammates abandoned him after the accident. This happens off the field as well; Rory and the other guys, for instance, warn Tom after Kylie gives a speech spilling his family's secret in front of her entire class, and Tom is shocked to realize that several of his teammates knew about the accident and simply saw no reason to say anything that would have made Tom uncomfortable. In this way, the camaraderie and trust that he experiences at Bennie's not only remind Tom of his love of rugby, but also that the game isn't worth playing without the friendship of his teammates.
Friendship and Teamwork ThemeTracker
Friendship and Teamwork Quotes in The Story of Tom Brennan
I wandered down the hall in case Mum was awake. The door to her room was open. I stood there. Maybe Dad was telling the truth, maybe she had just gone to bed and was waiting to hear how my first day went. I stepped into the doorway. A thickness in the air hung still and stale.
She didn't see me. How could she under all those covers?
"Yeah, thanks Mum," I whispered. "School went okay."
There were so many times when I just couldn't believe this'd happened, happened to me, to my family. This sort of thing happened to other people, not the Brennans.
"But remember your fellow man, Daniel, because life is more than just a one-man show. Everything we do in this life affects others. Did you think of that the night you got behind the wheel, your trusting passengers the loved ones of others? We think probably not."
"Being a team player, you should have known better."
"It gets him out of the mainstream for a while, gives him a bit of breathing space," explained Brendan. "He finds the visiting hard. I mean, it's his lifeline, but the guilt resurfaces every time. That's what strangles him."
Us Brennans had a lot to ask for and not much reason to give thanks. But I was thankful. Mum was up.
Once, probably not that long ago, I'm not sure I could've gone back at all. But here I was sliding the drawer open.
My breath panted at the back of my throat. He knew? Jimmy knew?
"We're your mates, Tom, " Rory started. "We're part of a..."
Bennie's just wasn't the same. Everyone got along, and there was no one person you'd call an arsehole, and they had team unity—you couldn't deny them that. But what they didn't have was technique, and that's what put them on the outer next to teams like St. John's that could play the game in their sleep.
"But we can't undo what's done. Bennie's is giving you a chance and, as pathetic as it may seem to you, it's still a chance." Again I heard his swallow, loud and dry. "No one's above anyone, surely you know that by now."
Since Dad's rave I'd been giving it all a fair bit of thought, but I couldn't exactly put my finger on it.
"You know, Dan, they really enjoy playing. It's not just about winning."
"Can't see the point," Dan frowned. "I mean, it's all about winning. Isn't it?"
"The best thing about playing in the firsts at St. John's was playing with you, Dan." As I said it I realized that towards the end it had become the worst thing too—trying to carry him as his game slipped and he stopped caring about us, the Brennan brothers.
"We were fighting all the time. The new young players were shit-scared. If you had a bad game you were dead meat. It wasn't about us, it was all about the Wattle Shield. We stopped looking out for each other."
"They couldn't control Dan. They were scared of him. Well, scared of the consequences if they tried to pull him into line [...] Maybe Daniel was always going to do something like this. Maybe he had to fall this far."
I hadn't enjoyed the last season at St. John's, that I knew now. It hadn't mattered how good my game was, the pressure, the disgruntlement, the unpredictability of Daniel just didn't add up to good footy. It added up to frustration and division.
Now I knew differently. Bennie's first fifteen had taught me plenty. When I'd needed it most, Bennie's had reminded me that the game was better when a team was united and loving it.