Ireland’s first inclusive LGBT+ rugby team
7 MIN READ
Back in the year 2000, Richie Whyte left Ireland to work for a software development company in Boulder, Colorado, USA.
Boulder lies over a mile above sea level, 5,480 feet to be exact, comfortably higher than Dublin, which is a mere 55 feet.
And it gets a lot more snow.
‘Three of the guys I was working with were from Switzerland,’ Richie says. ‘They kindly introduced me to the world of snowboarding.’
When the software development company merged with a Seattle-based consultancy, Richie left Boulder and went west.
The Seattle Gay Ski Snowboard Club
It was there, hoping to continue his new-found passion, that Richie discovered the Seattle Gay Ski Snowboard Club.
‘I thought that’s a set of words you don’t normally find clustered together – so I joined up,’ he says.
‘They were basically just a bunch of lads who went to resorts to go skiing for the weekend. It was fantastic.’
‘And it didn’t have any of the usual pressures of the dating scene,’ he adds.
As far as Richie was concerned, it was no different to a club in the ‘straight world’ – a shared interest that made it much easier for people to get to know each other.
Except that, back then, you just didn’t find these kind of sports clubs for gay men or women anywhere.
Unfortunately, Richie’s time in the US didn’t last.
The dotcom bubble burst, the software company collapsed and Richie was soon heading back over the Atlantic.
‘Something’s going to have to change’
Richie came home to a distinctly snowless Ireland.
But what he did bring back with him was a completely different perspective on what gay social life could be like.
‘I kept thinking I wish there was something like that club in Dublin.’
There was really nothing remotely like it, back then.
‘I was going out each weekend to ‘The George’ meeting the same barflies every week and I just thought ‘I can’t do this, I can’t be here when I’m 60.
Something’s going to have to change!’
Richie realised that he couldn’t simply wait for things to improve he was going to have to make change happen.
‘It’s funny now, because the answer was right in front of my face,’ he says.
So he racked his brains but he just couldn’t come up with a good idea for a sports-based social club for gay men.
What sport would appeal?
Despite living with a bunch of rugby players, one of whom was a professional, it took the suggestion of someone from Manchester to inspire him to set up a gay rugby club in Dublin.
‘It was almost like a bolt of lightning,’ Richie says. ‘Oh, for Godsakes, of course! This is so clearly it. Why didn’t I think of it before?’
To be fair to Richie, back in 2003, there was only a handful of gay rugby clubs in the entire world.
‘Nobody seemed to own it. And it was flat.’
The launch of Ireland’s first ever gay rugby team was pretty low key.
‘A bunch of us met up in what was GUBU and is now PantiBar,’ Richie says.
He isn’t sure but he thinks maybe 12 people might have turned up intrigued to find out what gay rugby was all about.
By the first training session maybe half of them had disappeared but others gradually replaced them.
‘I thought ‘this might just work,’ he says, ‘but we’ll have to go at it and see’.
The very first place the newly-formed team trained was a little patch of grass in Island Bridge near the War Memorial.
‘Nobody seemed to own. And it was flat,’ Richie recalls the criteria they used to select it.
‘Plus we needed somewhere close to the city centre because we had lads coming from all parts of Dublin but there are only so many places you can play rugby in the centre of Dublin.’
‘We did try the Phoenix Park later,’ Richie says, ‘but we got ran off that by the rangers a few times.’
The winter that the team trained in the park, he recalls that the ground was often frozen solid and there was a wind that, according to Richie, ‘would skin you alive’.
‘We had some of our coldest and most miserable training sessions ever there but it was all great fun at the same time.’
They also discovered that, unbeknownst to them, they had genuine rugby talent in their midst.
‘We were literally stumbling around in the dark doing cardio drills with Paddy Ryan, who was the first person to put his hand up to offer to train the team, when our first rugby coach emerged.’
‘Steve Gardiner who, until then, had been happy down the back of the training sessions, offered to begin our rugby coaching proper,’ Richie says.
The man who fought back against 9/11 hijackers
When the team started, their goal was simple: to get to play in what has become known commonly known as the gay rugby world cup, the Bingham Cup, first held in San Francisco in 2002.
The Bingham Cup was named after Mark Bingham who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Mark was a passenger on United flight 93, which went down in Pennsylvania, and is credited as one of the passengers who fought the hijackers before it crashed.
He was originally from San Francisco where he played for the San Francisco Fog gay rugby team and was in the process of moving to New York to help set up Gotham Knights there.
‘The first tournament, in San Francisco, had just 8 teams in it,’ Richie says. ‘The one we wanted to go to, London in 2004, had 20 teams in it.’
The Bingham Cup has been held every 2 years since 2002 with the most recent world cup, Amsterdam 2018, attracting 74 teams from 20 countries.
‘We didn’t have anyone suitable to play against’
As the Emerald Warriors began training for the world cup, they came up against one glaringly obvious issue.
There weren’t any other teams suitable to play against.
‘We were the first,’ Richie says. ‘There wasn’t another team remotely like us in Ireland so we didn’t have any compatible opponents.’
The issue was that most of the Warriors were taking up rugby for the first time, in adulthood, and they hadn’t the muscle memory of players who had played it since they were kids.
Consequently, they didn’t know how to fall and were prone to injury.
As Richie puts it, ‘where would you get another team of players in their 20s and 30s who absolutely loved playing rugby but hadn’t a clue what they were doing?’
The answer, of course, was at the upcoming Bingham Cup.
Meanwhile the team played tag rugby against each other.
‘Our first proper game was at the Bingham Cup’
That lack of opponents meant that their first proper, 15-a-side, rugby match was at the Bingham Cup in London, in 2004, against opponents from all over the world.
‘Our first proper 15-a-side match was against a UK team,’ Richie says, ‘ the Kings Cross Steelers.’
Unfortunately, not only had the Steelers played 15-man rugby before, they were also rather good at it (they were the world’s first gay-inclusive rugby union club).
‘It was absolutely mortifying. I don’t think we even got a score on the board in that match.’
‘I was taken out by this absolute man mountain, I’ve not seen anyone quite the size of him since, who just came at me with the ball.
I don’t know what happened – I still don’t – I just got up and everything had a soft and distant glow to it.
This was in the days before Head Injury Assessments which was fortunate because we didn’t have enough subs with us.’
As luck would have it, things picked up a little after their first game.
‘We played a match against the New York team and we won. We were just ecstatic. We couldn’t believe our good fortune,’ Richie says.
The Warriors enjoyed the rest of the tournament as they found their own level and started to have more competitive matches.
‘ I think we won one match,’ Richie says, ‘and got a reasonable score in the other match after our thrashing by the Steelers so we felt we couldn’t have done any better.’
‘Luckily we didn’t have any notions!’
‘We may be losing a match but these feckers are making history!’
The Warriors came back from London inspired by their experience at the Bingham cup.
‘There was a huge afterglow that fuelled us for the next two years and got us to the next world cup in New York, in 2006,’ Richie says.
And, with more confidence and competence, they began to play straight teams.
‘I think there was a considerable novelty interest in us at the start,’ Richie laughs.
‘When we were playing straight teams for the first couple of matches at any club lots of people would turn up just to see what a gay rugby team actually looked like.’
When they started to realise that the Warriors were just like any other rugby team the novelty died away a little.
But he sensed an anxiety in some of the teams the Warriors played against.
‘There was always the fear of being beaten by a gay team,’ Richie says. ‘Which you can understand in a way.’
He suspects that some of the earlier matches might have been slightly loaded.
Perhaps a few ‘ringers’ might have been brought into certain teams to make sure the ‘right result’ was achieved, he thinks.
‘Again, you can kind of understand that,’ Richie says.
In the first few years, there were the usual cricket scores against the team but they did start to get a few wins.
Richie recalls a game against Trinity.
‘We were beating them well (I think they were all a little hungover) when one of the Trinity players was heard to say, ‘listen, guys, we may be losing a match here but these feckers are making history!’
Support from the IRFU and professional players makes a difference
In 2008, just five years after the club was formed, the Emerald Warriors hosted the Bingham Cup in Dublin at DCU with 32 teams involved.
‘The IRFU have been fantastic from the word go,’ Richie says. ‘They’ve helped us when we hosted the Bingham Cup in 2008 and they’re helping us now with the Union Cup.’
Over the years, he says, the team has had lots of support from professional players too.
It may not sound like much but it has, he says, had a real impact.
‘Any kind of endorsement by lads who are world class rugby players is a really big thing for us.
That simple support has such a quietly powerful way of dissolving a lot of nonsense that may be going on in people’s heads.’
But why has rugby, of all the sports out there, become such a fast-growing sport for gay men and women?
Richie points out that many gay men who are interested in sport are wary of playing team sports in their teens as they are trying to come to terms with their sexuality.
‘Gay men can back off group sports because they’re still trying to sort out things in their heads – they figure, ‘let’s just keep away from anything that might be a problem’.’
They might take up individual sports like running or swimming rather instead but they are more solitary.
Which can mean that they don’t get to experience the support and camaraderie that comes with playing for a team.
‘You know that feeling when you look left and right on the pitch and you see someone at your side who you know will back you up and say ‘yes, I’m with you’?’
‘That’s something a lot of gay people just don’t have.’
And rugby brings all that in cartloads.
Coming out to play
The Emerald Warriors have not only helped provide that team experience for gay men they have also become a safe place to come out.
Richie remembers saying to someone once, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if someone’s first interaction with the gay world was to join the Warriors?’
Six months later, a new, young player joined the team.
‘The first time he was in a gay bar was at a fundraiser for the Warriors so his coming out was literally playing rugby which was extraordinary,’ Richie says.
‘It has given so much to so many people’
Find out more about the Union Cup
The Union Cup is Europe’s biggest LGBTQ+ inclusive rugby tournament and will be held this June at Dublin City University hosted by the Emerald Warriors.
This year, the Union Cup will host a women’s rugby tournament for the first time.
To find out more about the Emerald Warriors click here.
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