Coming out to play

Sat, Apr 2, 2005, 01:00

Howard Webster reports on Ireland's first gay rugby team, their acceptance by the IRFU and their September 11th hero

Emerald Warriors RFC, based in Dublin, are Ireland's first and only all-gay rugby team. "When we first mooted the idea to the Irish Rugby Football Union there was a certain stunned silence, as you can imagine," says Richie Whyte, the club's 37-year-old founder. "There was an exchange of letters, then I arranged to meet the IRFU's chief executive, Philip Browne. We sat down, had a chat and he said, great, lads: go for it."

Karl Richardson, spokesman for the IRFU, says: "A lot of people outside of the rugby world thought that gay men wouldn’t have been welcomed by rugby. But, from the IRFU’s point of view, the more people who play the game, the better it is for rugby . . . There’s nothing to stop a gay player, if he has the drive and the commitment, from reaching representative level."

With the team affiliated to the IRFU, the next big challenge for Whyte was to recruit players. Dublin’s gay scene isn’t a community that most Irish rugby  clubs automatically think about for recruitment drives. It certainly required a different approach – and a sense of fun, says Whyte. "You have to have a sense of humour about yourself. Everyone else is going to be laughing at you anyway, so you might as well enjoy it as well."

Posters went up in gay clubs and bars around Dublin, inviting revellers to "Get your kit on" and to "Come out and play rugby". They were also challenged by the philosophical credo "I ruck, therefore I am".

The next step for Whyte was to come up with a name for the team. "We went through a variety of possibilities. Wolfhounds was one, but it was already taken. One of the names suggested was the Ringsend Bandits. But we thought not: the younger guys wouldn’t wear it . . . By a process of elimination we came up with the Emerald Warriors."

The Warriors needed sponsorship, too, and support from a sceptical gay community. One idea was a contest to find the ultimate Emerald Warriors cheerleader, known in these circles as a "queerleader". "The idea of the queerleader competition was to familiarise people on the scene with rugby and to get them to consider the sport as a serious option," says Nick Costello, a film publicist and Warrior. "People were saying: ‘Rugby? That’s not a gay thing. Why are you doing that? If you are going to do sport you should do something frillier – badminton, ice skating.’ "

The team also took part in the Dublin Pride parade. "The team marched in full rugby kit, passing balls among themselves in the rain," says Costello. "It suited us far better than it suited the drag queens. Drag queens and torrential rain don’t mix. Natural enemies."

The Warriors are now a full club with a healthy membership list. A documentary is being made about them. Publicity is, however, something Richie Whyte is naturally wary of. "I don’t think the wider rugby community is aware of the team’s existence yet. Obviously, some people are, but the word hasn’t got around."

Gay rugby teams are being formed all over the world, and are finding and training players who wouldn’t previously have dreamed of playing the sport. They have a major international role model too. One of the "heroes" aboard United Airlines flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001, was a 110kg, 195cm rugby player, a member of San Francisco Fog RFC, a team set up to encourage gay men to play the sport. "Mark Bingham was an amazingly courageous man. He was the one who ensured that this plane didn’t achieve its objective," says Robert Horner, former president of England’s Rugby Football Union.

The voice recordings from the flight assured a place for Bingham in history –  and turned him into an unlikely sporting hero. He has given his name to an international gay rugby tournament, the Bingham Cup. Initiated in 2002, is now the world’s largest amateur rugby competition, with teams travelling from all over the globe to participate.

It was after living in the US that Whyte got the idea for the Warriors. "When I lived in the US I joined a gay ski and snowboard club. I really enjoyed it. I found that the fact that everyone was concentrating on doing something, and not concentrating on each other, led to a far healthier interaction between people. It wasn’t a dating thing. It was about having normal friendships that weren’t focused on going to bars and the whole social drinking scene. That really appealed.

"When I came home to Ireland I really missed it. I needed to do something. I thought, should I do yoga? But there was no way I was going to motivate myself to do yoga. Then I was chatting to someone online who’d mentioned the idea of starting a rugby team. One day I thought, that’s it, that’s what we’ll do. There’ll be a rugby team. I just wanted to roll a lot of problems that needed solving into one. I could make friends in a normal environment that isn’t centred around booze – hard to do in Ireland – and do something that was good, healthy and outdoors." Nick Costello believes many young gay men become isolated when they realise they are different at school and as a result are drawn to solitary sports, such as swimming and wrestling. This, he says, can become socially isolating and emotionally unhealthy.

Aside from the fitness aspects, he believes rugby is a healthy activity for young men to engage in. "It brings people together in a fraternal way. Playing rugby is an unlikely activity for the stereotypical gay man, who is completely self-absorbed. It is about working as a team, learning to rely on others. The whole hissy-fit, queen thing; there’s no room for that, although I have been a culprit once or twice."

Pete Dubois, hooker with San Francisco’s Fog club, also sees benefits for young gay men in playing rugby. "I have been most amazed by the individual stories of guys who have joined our team. They came to us with very low self-esteem, very low self-confidence, never played a team sport or any sport.

They always felt marginalised and didn’t want to subject themselves to ridicule. When you see some of these guys join our team, at first they struggle a bit. Then, in a year or two, they develop into damn good rugby players. Along with that, their self-confidence and their self-esteem grow. They can feel like they can be themselves without repercussions. They learn to rely on other people; there is a network of support for them. We’ve even had people come to us with drug problems. They have that network of people they can reach out to."

Andrew Macken, a young architect from Dublin who describes himself, with a straight face, as a versatile utility player effective in a number of positions,  joined the Warriors because he felt it was a good alternative to the standard scene and the gym. "I’d never played rugby before. I was a complete novice. I had no interest in ball sports at school. So I turned up on day one and learned the rules of rugby from scratch. I don’t think I’d ever watched more than five minutes of a rugby game before that."

Although the Emerald Warriors are Ireland’s first gay rugby team, the IRFU’s Karl Richardson stresses that this doesn’t afford them special status. "All new clubs get equal support from the union. From the IRFU’s perspective they are no different to any other club. They won’t be treated differently and wouldn’t want to be."

But having bravely blazed the way, how long before the Warriors have another  Irish team to challenge them?

For more details, see www.emeraldwarriorsrfc.com