Playing Offside
Grade : B

I really enjoyed Jax Calder’s Beautiful Hearts when I read it for the TBR Challenge last year, and intended to try some of her other books although, as usual, the issue was finding the time! I finally managed to get around to reading Playing Offside, book one in her Sporting Secrets series, set in New Zealand in the world of professional rugby, and despite a few niggles, enjoyed it enough to want to read the next book in the series.

Aiden Jones is one of the best rugby players in the world, one of the New Zealand national rugby team’s starting line-up. He’s worked hard and sacrificed much to get where he is, having made the decision early on in his career to keep his sexuality under wraps until he retires, and, now twenty-eight, he’s been at the top of his profession for a number of years. But as every pro athlete knows, that peak period is finite, and Aiden is under no illusions about that. But he’s playing well and certainly has no plans to go anywhere just yet; his starting spot is secure and this season, he’s determined to break the record for the number of points scored by a first five – and certainly doesn’t need to be distracted by the brash, cocky new kid on the block who has just joined the training squad, no matter how talented he is. Or how hot.

Twenty-year-old Tyler Bannings can’t quite believe he’s playing alongside his idol (and long-time crush) Aiden Jones after only one season in professional rugby. The first time they’d met on the pitch - on opposing teams - he’d been treated to the full Aiden Jones Ice King treatment and had unleashed his own brand of smartassery in an attempt to provoke a response – which failed. Called up to play for the national team, he’s determined to make the Ice King notice him, both on the pitch and off.

Once training starts and Tyler starts to show just how very good a player he is, it doesn’t take the sporting media long to start speculating about how long it will be before he takes Aiden’s starting spot on the team. Assigned to room together for the duration of training camp, Aiden and Tyler start to get to know each other a little; Aiden still thinks Tyler is a cocky little shit, but there’s a charm to him that he can’t help but like, and Tyler gets a glimpse beneath Aiden’s tightly controlled exterior to the kind, good-humoured man beneath. The book is billed as an enemies-to-lovers romance, but it isn’t really one; Aiden and Tyler are professional rivals rather than true enemies, and their initial hostility stems from Tyler’s tendency to use smart-mouthed snark to deflect from the “ugly stuff I didn’t want to share with the world” and Aiden’s use of his Ice King persona to stop people getting close and figuring out his secret. But beneath that hostility is a bubbling attraction that eventually boils over into a passionate encounter they both agree can’t ever happen again.

Except – of course – that it does. And it keeps happening. As training camp ends and the season gets underway, Aiden and Tyler continue getting together in secret whenever they can, often going to great lengths to do so, such as a getaway on a private island, or weekends snatched here and there at Aiden’s remote cottage. They do start hooking up quite early on in the book, but as the story progresses, the author builds their emotional connection, too, showing them both realising that whatever they’re doing, it’s been more than ‘just sex’ for a while and that they’re both in much deeper than they’d intented. But there’s always the spectre of their professional situation lurking in the background, the looming possibility that Aiden is going to lose his starting spot to Tyler sooner rather than later, and the author handles this side of the story well, clearly showing Aiden’s conflicting emotions – on the one hand apprehensive and angry at the prospect of losing the thing he’s worked so hard for, on the other wanting to feel pleased and proud that the man he loves is on the verge of achieving his dream. And the exernal conflict is nicely balanced by the internal. Although Aiden has hidden the fact that he’s gay for years, he knows and accepts who he is and is relaxed about it with the small number of people who know, while Tyler is carrying years of internalised homophobia and can barely say the word “gay” without flinching. (His father is the only person who knows he’s queer, and his reaction to finding his fifteen-year-old-son kissing another boy was to take a belt to him and guilt him into not telling his mother.) This leads to some serious conflict later in the book; Aiden has been looking forward to being able to live openly as his true self in a couple of years, but with Tyler likely to be playing for maybe another ten years, is he prepared to remain in the closet for all that time? Because Tyler has made it very clear he has no intentions of coming out while he’s still playing – and maybe not even after.

Aiden and Tyler are well-developed and likeable, and I enjoyed seeing their relationship going from friends-with-benefits to more throughout the year spanned by the story. The conflicts are believable – although Tyler’s dad is somewhat stereotypical – and, as I saw in Beautiful Hearts – the author really knows how to convey strong emotion in an understated but heartfelt way. There are, however, a couple of things that brought my final grade down a bit. Firstly, Tyler’s dad is the stereotypical homophobic father character we’ve seen hundreds of times before, and not only that, but his ‘apology’ (if it can be called that) is weak and not very believable. And it rankled what, when Aiden is about to throw himself under the bus for Tyler’s sake near the end, Tyler is going to let him do it until his DAD talks some sense into him. Not only is that kind of weird (given Tyler’s dad hates that his son is gay), I couldn’t help wondering if Tyler would have acted on his own, which isn’t how I want to feel near the end of a romance. Oh - and there’s one thing that didn’t make any sense to me. I’m not a rugby fan, but even I know that the New Zealand team is called the All Blacks. It’s a massive, world-wide brand, but for some reason the author never names them and instead uses awkward nomenclature like “the New Zealand squad” or “wearing a New Zealand rugby jersey” (she even describes the All Blacks’ feather logo and has them do a Haka!) or “playing for New Zealand”. I suspect that no self-respecting rugby player or sports journalist in the world would talk about the New Zealand rugby team – they’d say All Blacks! It’s a small thing in the scheme of the book, but I found it really odd – especially when Jax Calder’s fellow Kiwi author, Jay Hogan, had one of the leads in Crossing the Touchline playing for the All Blacks.

Anyway. Those niggles apart, I enjoyed the book and was pleased to find that the opinion I formed from my first experience with Jax Calder’s work (it’s good!) was held up by my second. Playing Offside is warm, funny, and tender; the writing is good, the characters are well-fleshed out, and the love story is emotional and well done. If you’re into m/m sports romance, this one is definitely worth adding to your TBR.

Reviewed by Caz Owens
Grade : B

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : January 28, 2024

Publication Date: 08/2021

Recent Comments …

Caz Owens

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two gorgeous young women who are without doubt, my finest achievement :)I’ve gravitated away from my first love – historical romance – over the last few years and now read mostly m/m romances in a variety of sub-genres. I’ve found many fantastic new authors to enjoy courtesy of audiobooks - I probably listen to as many books as I read these days – mostly through glomming favourite narrators and following them into different genres.And when I find books I LOVE, I want to shout about them from the (metaphorical) rooftops to help other readers and listeners to discover them, too.
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