Seven pm and the Bondi sun is still caressing surfers, bikini girls and topless males pulling up from their cliff-top runs. Near the lifeguard tower, 30 men have gathered for their twice-weekly rugby training. The men have nicknames suited to the game, or prison – Jay-Z, Killer, Jumbo, Fezbot, Big Girl – and range in age from 18 to 50-plus. Nearly all of them are gay.
Don’t act so surprised. Any gay man will tell you that out of all the ball sports, rugby is particularly laden with homoerotic innuendo. It’s not just the shorts. There’s the language, too: ‘hookers’, ‘tackle’ and ‘back line’. Men constantly ‘go down’. When players lock shoulders for a scrum, they position their butts at provocative angles before man-handling each other like Greco-Roman wrestlers. One member of this rugby team – sidelined because of a wrist injury – tells me that whenever he got into this position in high school, he’d have to think hard of something soft.
They are the Sydney Convicts, one of the most formidable teams in New South Wales’ suburban rugby union roster and twice titleholders of the Bingham Cup – an international gay rugby tournament – and therefore legitimate claimants to the title of Best Gay Rugby Team in the World.
Gay rugby is neither a fringe movement nor a novelty. These men train seriously and endure fractured wrists, rolled ankles and permanently twisted fingers. Worldwide, it is wildly competitive. The International Gay Rugby Association and Board (or, rather cutely, IGRAB) has roughly 40 active clubs registered between Australia, North America and Europe, most of which will compete in the 2012 Bingham Cup in Manchester.
This year, the stakes are particularly high for the Convicts. After failing to defend their title at the 2010 Bingham Cup in Minneapolis, and losing the bid to host the 2012 event in Sydney, the men have something to prove. Today is their first training session since Christmas. The banter is about who’s gotten fat over the break. Back-line captain James Saunders, however, clearly hasn’t stopped training. He is 26, 190 centimetres, 89 kilograms and fine-looking.
Saunders, who is Indigenous, also has rugby in his blood. His maternal uncle played for the Canberra Raiders and, as a teenager, various clubs courted Saunders to play professionally.
“People were noticing, saying, ‘He can go far if he wants.’ But my heart wasn’t in it,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t going to fit in.” It wasn’t until Saunders discovered the Convicts as an adult that he started taking rugby seriously again. He even moved from Brisbane to Sydney to train, in time to compete at the 2006 Bingham Cup in New York, which the team won. Saunders met his boyfriend playing with the Convicts. The team also gave Saunders the means to finally come out to his mother. He phoned her and said he had some news. First of all, he said, he was playing rugby seriously again. She was ecstatic.
“Who are you playing for?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s a special rugby team,” he said.
“What do you mean, a special rugby team?”
On occasion, the Convicts have copped flak on the field. There was a team from Western Sydney, for instance. “They were an aggressive, rough team, a lot bigger than us,” Saunders recalls. The Convicts were ahead when one of their opponents started calling Saunders a faggot. “I just said, ‘Well, buddy: you’re getting beaten by a poofter. How do you feel about that?’”
Confrontations like that are uncommon, though. Saunders says the fact they’re gay doesn’t come up in nine games out of ten. “Rugby is such a tough sport,” he says. “If you can play a full game, your opponent will respect you.”
In any case, as club president David Whittaker points out, up to a third of the Convicts identify as straight. “The whole ethos of the team is that it’s inclusive,” Whittaker says. Some straight members don’t even know they’ve joined a gay rugby team until weeks – sometimes months – later. Evidently the homoerotic horsing around in the locker room isn’t very different from that of any other club – it goes with the territory.
One straight player joined up after his best friend – who was gay – had committed suicide. Joining the Convicts was his way of supporting the gay community.
Straight or gay, members raise money for their Bingham Cup exploits through strip-shows that have become a biannual hit on Oxford Street. “It’s amazing what we’ll do to fly halfway around the world to play rugby,” Whittaker says. “If you’re a new Convict, your initiation involves getting up on stage and getting your gear off. It’s all for the good of the club.”
Of course, being Sydney, there are plenty of other niche rugby clubs on the amateur roster. Every year, out of goodwill, the Convicts take on Maccabi – an entirely Jewish side – in a special tournament. It’s called the Streisand Cup. “We like to think we play to a standard,” Whittaker says, “that would make the great lady proud.”