Gay and inclusive rugby is not new. The London based Kings Cross Steelers were established as the world’s first club of this type in 1995 leading the way for the over 100 clubs to establish around the world, including five in Australia. The Australasian clubs come together every two years to contest the Purchas Cup and in 2021, the Sharks will represent Adelaide as a team for the first time.
Larger than this is the biennial Bingham Cup operated by International Gay Rugby (IGR), the coordinating body for the gay and inclusive teams. Named after Mark Bingham who was killed in the September 11 attacks, this tournament is promoted as the gay rugby World Cup. The last was hosted by the Amsterdam Lowlanders in 2018 with about 80 teams (1700 players + 600 team officials needing 500 volunteers) taking to the Dutch rugby fields. It was five days of competition across three tiers of rugby with a party environment like none other. Where else but at Bingham Cup can you see a prop come straight off the field, grab a beer and nail a Tina Turner routine.
After participating in the Barbarian teams at both events, an Adelaide player recognised there was something more in combining the rugby and rainbow cultures. The cogs turned and the opportunity arose when Adelaide University President Matt Mooney said, “I’d like to do more for the gay community than a token come and try.” The Club explored the benefits and the Sharks were pitched as an addition to Adelaide University that will bring a new dynamic into the University sporting environment.
For the individual joining the Sharks, it brings an opportunity to meet other LGBITQ men in an organic environment for a shared purpose. There is the opportunity to be part of a team, not just as a rugby player, but as a rugby player who is the same as the guy next to him with nothing to hide or feel different about. It is the chance to truly be part of more as 100% yourself. Being part of a rugby team expands everyone’s social networks and the same is true for the individuals joining the Sharks. They become part of a group and where players from the existing club teams may head into town for a night that ends in the Woolshed, the Sharks are likely to end up as a group at Mary’s.
The team receives the chance to break stereotypes about the LGBTIQ community and be recognised as rugby players on the sporting field who happen to be gay, bi or trans. All these players act as role models to the broader LGBTIQ community to take part in activities that will test their limits, provide challenging experiences and develop a shared camaraderie on and off the field.
For the Club, it’s the addition of another team in the competition, an extended pool of volunteers and the growth of the membership base. It is also the respect and reputation as a Club willing to be known as welcoming to the LGBTIQ community. Best of all is the numbers the Club receives at social functions or the ‘off the cuff’ events at our sponsor hotel. Sharks and Blacks join together at these gatherings and enjoy the University camaraderie.
For Rugby South Australia, it’s a gateway into the sport for those who are new. It welcomes those who return to the sport from past seasons. It provides another avenue to continue for those who thought about moving away. There are two other RUSA clubs represented in the Sharks and there were enquiries from members of two others. Members were attracted through a targeted recruiting process. Launching the first come and try, the Sharks approached other LGBTIQ communities to share the social media event directly with members and followers. Interstate clubs and IGR coordinators posted on their pages and socials to capture those Adelaideans following gay rugby clubs. During the process, enquiries were received from those new to sporting cultures, those changing football codes, those returning to rugby and active players looking for a team with more guys like them.
Other publicity came from outside sources. During the formation, The Advertiser approached the Sharks for a story which ran on the front page and Japan’s Asahi Shimbun interviewed the Sharks as a promotion for inclusive based sports.
As the Sharks grew, the team seized opportunities to be part of LGBTIQ community events. The squad marched in the Adelaide Pride Parade and hosted a stall at Picnic in the Park, Adelaide’s finale pride event in November and quickly followed these up with more Come and Try events. These activities proved productive for the whole club with these events also recruiting women and other senior men into the greater club.
After recruiting, the new players needed an introduction to rugby. A rugby academy operated over the second half of 2019 to prepare the team for the 2020 season. Held separately to the regular University training, this provided a skills neutral environment for the inexperienced players to develop together and form a dedicated team culture. Some experienced players attended to refresh their own skills, to translate rugby language and to encourage participation in national events.
Four Sharks and one University player flew to Brisbane in September 2019 to be part of the Barbarians team in the Purchas Cup. Here, the real taste of inclusive rugby encouraged stronger development. It was a warm welcome from the established Clubs as the players networked at the matches and the corresponding social events.
After almost a year of recruiting, academy and training, the Sharks went to North Torrens for their first XVs matches (half each) against Southern Suburbs and North Torrens. This was a great welcome to RUSA from the other Clubs with both opponents showing respect, providing constructive competition and demonstrating that rugby is for everyone. This left the Sharks with that first taste of rugby and the passion to seek out more.