The Scrum of Us
Desperately seeking horseplay at a gay rugby tournament
The Rugby League World Cup currently underway in England in all its rucking-rutting Ultra HD glory, reminded me of another international rugby tournament. Back in 2004 I penned this scurrilous and side-letting-down feature for David Mills at Australia's (now sadly defunct) Blue magazine, about my churlish disappointment with the Gay Ruby (Union) World Cup.
I think I’d better be upfront about this. I'd better tackle this head on. Go straight for the legs, if you know what I mean, and not be namby-pamby about it, worrying about getting bruised or breaking a nail.
I'd better be, well, a great big, hairy, sweary, muddy man about this. Thing is, I like watching rugby. Players.
Oh, I try to be interested in the game itself. I do, I really do. I've forced myself to watch bald men in cardigans discussing it after the final whistle on telly – when I'd much rather the camera had followed the lads into the changing rooms and the communal muddy bath.
I even subscribed to Rugby World for a while, but I was only looking at the pictures and you can get that sort of thing for free online now - including those ‘embarrassing’ shorts down/snapped jockstrap moments - so I cancelled my direct debit.
I've actually had conversations in pubs about rugby, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what I said. The truth of the matter is that I'm really only interested in rugby thighs. And arses. And hands. And forearms. And necks. I don't pay nearly enough attention to the odd-shaped balls.
But then, the main point of rugby, as far as I can tell, is developing one of those shelflike arses you can stand a pint on. During the 2000 Rugby Union World Cup, I couldn't help thinking that whenever blond Jonno Wilkinson did his little praying routine before kicking a conversion – leaning forwards, hands and feet together, and sticking out his prize English bubble-butt – that he was sending a personal invitation to me to stand behind him and try a conversion myself. For me, rugby is just foreplay to the after-match horseplay.
I know, I know. This is exactly the kind of predictable, sex-obsessed, shallow homo cliché that the Bingham Cup and the plethora of fine, upstanding gay rugby teams playing here today, in what is possibly the largest international amateur rugby tournament in the world, are trying to do away with. But there it is. I can't help myself.
Today, on a pleasant late-May afternoon at this rugby club somewhere in Southwest London, the Kings Cross Steelers, the first gay rugby team in the world, are hosting an international scrum down with stereotypes, themed "Our World in Union".
The Steelers were founded in a gay pub in London just nine years ago , but since then gay rugby teams have been springing up like, well, pansies, all over the world. There are nineteen teams (with names such as 'Dallas Diablos' and 'Atlanta Bucks’, most are from the US) and over five hundred players taking part in this tournament, sponsored by Thistle Hotels United Airlines, Abbey Well mineral water, and... ID 'sensual lubricants', who have a large inflatable phallic bottle of lube next to their stand. Every rugby match should have one.
'The main point of rugby, as far as I can tell, is developing one of those shelflike arses you can stand a pint on.'
The tournament is named after Mark Bingham, a gay American rugby player who died on September 11, 2001, on United Flight 93, bravely fighting the hijackers with other passengers, and perhaps averting an attack on Washington DCs Capitol Building. His words are printed proudly on the back of the program for this tournament:
‘We have the chance to be role models for the gay folks who wanted to play sports but never felt good enough or strong enough... More importantly, we have the chance to show the other teams that we are as good as they are. Good rugby players. Good partiers. Good sports. Good men.’
Good men. Now there's a concept – a novel one for the gay world. While there might be something male about its hedonism and promiscuity, the gay world is one in which masculinity has been largely rejected, evaded, or simply aestheticized. Fetishised. Sat on.
Ironic then that while TV is full of flaming Fairy Godfathers, Queer Eyes, and straight men are apparently just gagging to be metrosexed up, many gays themselves are moving further away from the flamboyant and closer to more ‘traditional’, furrier ideas of masculinity. Looking around today, it's hard not to speculate that the explosion of interest in gay rugby in the US is related to the ‘bear' phenomenon with its self-consciously masculine rituals and symbols.
"Is gay rugby for fetishists?" I ask David King, press spokesman for the Steelers and one of the organisers of this tournament, mostly just to get a rise out of him. "The sort who wear rugby shorts to specialist nights in basement bars?”
“No, definitely not," he replies. "If they came for that I think they'd be very disappointed very quickly. There's no difference between a gay-friendly rugby team like the Steelers and a straight rugby team, except that most of the players are gay." (The Steelers have one straight player.)
“No difference at all?"
“None, that's why we play against straight teams in the league."
"What about horseplay?"
"Nude drinking games. Soggy biscuit contests. That kind of thing."
"Oh, I think the reputation for horseplay that rugby players have is overstated," he says.
Hmmm. If it's overstated it's by rugby players themselves. I played rugby at school, and I can tell you it's all true. Straight rugger buggers love nothing more than getting naked with one another and drinking beer poured down their mate's arse crack and over his balls. I was in a pub in Glasgow recently and the university rugby team was getting hammered on vodka. They started French kissing one another. I had to leave the pub as I thought I would spontaneously combust. It was only 7pm. God knows what they were up to by last orders.
"Come off it," I say to King. "You know as well as I do that rugby players love their horseplay.”
"Well, maybe, but the Steelers don't have much in the way of horseplay, I'm afraid,” he says.
"Well, maybe because we have boyfriends at home, so we don't need to see another man naked at the club."
"So if I - sorry, one - were looking for some after-match horseplay with other rugby players then one should join a straight rugby club?"
"Perhaps, but why the obsession with horseplay?"
"Maybe I want to recapture my youth. Maybe it's an important part of a rough-and-tumble team sport, the reward for playing hard on the pitch. Maybe I'm just a perve. But you did say there were no differences between a gay-friendly rugby team and a straight one. Don't you think the outside world would think it slightly odd, not to say disappointing, that you'd find the least horseplay in a gay rugby team?"
"Oh, I don't know," replies King, understandably a little irritated now. "Perhaps you should try the Spartans – I think they have more horseplay than us."
The Spartans are the main rivals of the Steelers and are based in Manchester, in the north of England where men are men and wear T-shirts in winter.
But apparently, they don't get up to much more than the Steelers in the locker room. “Horseplay? No, not really,” says Matt, 29, a former player with the Spartans and their recruitment officer, who is watching the tournament with his partner Brad. “We did have a song which went 'Does my bum look big in this?', but I suppose that doesn't really count because if it were proper horseplay, we wouldn't have been wearing anything."
Unlike most players in gay teams, Matt played rugby in 'straight' teams before the Spartans. "To be honest, I think the main problem is not with the attitudes of straight rugby teams but with gays," he explains. "Straight rugby teams weren't really interested in whether we were gay or not, just whether we could play rugby. But when I'd try to persuade gay people to give it a go they'd say, 'What? Me play rugby?! You've got to be joking, Mary!’"
"You were the PE teacher they'd run away from all those years ago come back to torment them!”
Matt laughs. "In a way. But you see some really amazing transformations. People come out of their shells. I think the experience of being part of a team and the rough and tumble of the game can be therapeutic; it gives people confidence. Some very quiet, very shy guys become life-of-the-party extroverts after joining."
“But no horseplay.”
I ask several other team members from all round the world and get a similar response. Gay rugby = no horseplay. A member of the Sydney Convicts says that some of them “did the full Monty on stage for charity" but then adds: “I suppose though that it was on stage. So it was show business really...” I give up and decide on the radical approach of watching the matches. They are surprisingly, at least to me, fierce and hard-fought. There doesn't appear to be too much reluctance to tackle. Over the course of the day several players are stretchered off, others limp from the field bleeding like noble warriors. They appear to be living up to Mark Bingham's vision.
Alas, there doesn't appear to be much evidence of gay support, despite blanket coverage in the gay press: most of the spectators are other players and friends. The stall vendors who have come along expecting a big turnout are suffering. Buying some doughnuts from a van, I can't get the owner to take my money. "It's not going to make any difference now," he sighs, starting to pack up. There's something sad about not being able to sell doughnuts at a rugby match.
Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be less masculine affection, camaraderie, and tenderness on display at this gay event than at most ‘straight’ rugby matches I've attended. Perhaps because, like horseplay, in a gay context it means too much, is less easily tendered, and displayed. At the annual Army and Navy match in Twickenham a few weeks earlier I saw lads arm in arm or sitting with their heads on their mate's shoulder. I even saw one drunken lad slap away his mate's girlfriend's hand so he could hold hands with him himself.
The Spartans manage to beat the Steelers in the semi-final and go on to face the formidable San Francisco Fog, Mark Bingham's old team and the current cup holders in the final. They put up a valiant effort, but the Fog steamroller them 26-7. They are widely perceived as the most serious, most professional of the teams here: they play like clockwork and have a paid coach. Perhaps the rise of gay rugby is, in all sorts of ways, a function of the professionalisation of rugby.
While the Fog celebrate their win, a young player streaks across the pitch, which naturally spikes my interest. He has the best, rugbyest arse I've seen all day, capable of supporting an entire round of pint glasses – but being gay of course he knows it. If you're going to streak in front of several hundred gay men, you'd better have something to show off.
Later that evening at the tournament dinner a fire alarm goes off and everyone has to troop outside. When the fire brigade arrives, they are greeted by a few hundred pissed gay rugby players singing a chorus of "GET YOUR HOSES OUT, NA-NA NA NA!"
So I shouted at the bugger ruggers – "GET YOURS OUT FIRST!”
Actually, I didn't say that. I wasn't even at the dinner – I wasn't invited (I was told about the story later).
I think they'd heard about my interest in horseplay.
Not long after this piece appeared, I received an email informing me that the guy with the ‘rugbyest arse’ who streaked across the pitch after the final match - undercutting all my moaning about the lack of horseplay in gay rugby - was in fact straight. And Australian.