Game on for New Zealand’s sole gay rugby side

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 28/08/2014
BIG WEEKEND: Members of New Zealand's only gay rugby team prepare for the Bingham Cup in Sydney this weekend. Back row, from left, Ray Pye (coach), Jeremy Brankin (captain), Dean Knight, Karl Wilshier, Sam Learmonth. Front row, from left, Mike Brady, Mauro Arzaga, Jack Cottrell, Todd Martin (assistant coach).

BIG WEEKEND: Members of New Zealand's only gay rugby team prepare for the Bingham Cup in Sydney this weekend. Back row, from left, Ray Pye (coach), Jeremy Brankin (captain), Dean Knight, Karl Wilshier, Sam Learmonth. Front row, from left, Mike Brady, Mauro Arzaga, Jack Cottrell, Todd Martin (assistant coach).

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They may be out there somewhere - and New Zealand's only gay rugby team looks forward to the day when an All Black is game enough to identify as homosexual.

At a purely social reserves grade level in Auckland, the Falcons took that step last winter when, motivated by competing at the Bingham Cup in Sydney this weekend, they formed with the assistance of the Ponsonby club.

The Falcons train as a squad for the first time in the city today and they make their tournament debut tomorrow.

A training session for all 30 competing clubs run under the supervision of Wallabies set-piece coach Andrew Blades and members of the Super Rugby-winning NSW Waratahs took place yesterday - an indication of how the Australian Rugby Union has embraced what is essentially the gay rugby World Cup.

In September next year Auckland hosts an Australasian tournament for the first time where it is hoped All Black players and coaching staff will also have an input.

''We're starting conversations with them (the NZRU),'' said lock Dean Knight, who commutes from Wellington to play for the Falcons.

''The Australian Rugby Union has been great with their work, their players making appearances and their anti-homophobia policy.

''We'll look to try and echo that in New Zealand. The hard work has been done in Australia.''

Falcons captain and openside flanker Jeremy Brankin said All Black involvement in next year's tournament would be hugely beneficial.

''That would be fantastic as a motivator for the guys, just to see that the All Blacks do care about a team like us. It'd be awesome if they came along.

''I don't think many of the players or coaches there would have a problem in this day and age. It's just a matter of finding time in their busy schedules.''

The Falcons already have one All Black legend onside - 38 test wing and Ponsonby stalwart Bryan ''Bee Gee'' Williams.

''He's always been a strong champion of the Falcons and the (former) Ponsonby Heroes back in the day. He set the path.

''He's an absolute legend. He understands what it's like to be a minority person in a sport's environment,'' said Knight, in relation to Williams' Samoan heritage when he played for the All Blacks between 1970-78.

While Williams' support has been invaluable, Knight and Falcons coach Ray Pye agree a current or future All Black coming out as gay would be a landmark moment for the code in New Zealand - and a potential lifesaver for young Kiwi men struggling with their sexuality.

''If just one All Black would just stand up and say 'Hey, I'm gay' it would save, I'm sure, many a young man's life, (those) who take their life because they think they're alone in the world,'' Pye said.

''Role models are really important,'' added Knight.

''When you're a young gay kid who's 17-18 and you've been playing rugby since you were seven or eight role models are a mirror for who you are.

''For me, when I was a young kid it was Ian Roberts in (Australian) rugby league, he was gold.''

In more recent times former Wales and British and Irish Lions back Gareth Thomas came out in 2009 - two years before he retired.

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Michael Sam, who is currently with the St Louis Rams, was the first openly gay player included in a NFL draft.

However, Knight accepted it was unlikely for a past or current All Black to follow Thomas' lead.

''I don't think we're going to get an All Black burst out of the closet. That's not going to happen. What you're going to have is a scenario where there's a young gay kid who's out and he's going to be good enough to get picked.''

The Bingham Cup was first held in 2002 and named in honour of Mark Bingham, who died in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks when he and other passengers forced the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 to crash on farmland before it could reach targets in Washington DC.

Bingham played for the San Francisco Fog, the Falcon's second opponents.

The Kiwis open their campaign against England's Manchester Village Spartans and also face the Brisbane Hustlers in pool play.

- Stuff

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