'My rugby team is helping to break the stereotype that gay men don't play sports'
As a teen struggling coming to terms with his sexuality, Noel Noblett was petrified that team-mates would 'out' him. Now he's finally found a club where he feels fully accepted
I've always thought rugby was a sport that depends on trust. Each time Conor Murray produces a box kick for Ireland in the World Cup, he trusts his team mates to be up and under that ball. Each time Sean O'Brien ploughs through the opposition's defensive line, he trusts there'll be another teammate on his back, ready to protect the ball at the ruck.
The same applies to most team sports. Without trust, the team can't work as a unit - and this is something which has only become obvious to me in recent years.
Most sports weren't popular in my family home. Yes, the All-Ireland finals would be on the TV and we were certainly 'dancing at the crossroads' in 1996 when Wexford won the Liam McCarthy cup, but we were by no means a sporting household.
All through my adolescence, I was never very confident in myself. I found it hard to find my clique. I wasn't academic, but I did enjoy playing sports. I joined the Gaelic football and hurling teams, but never felt like I fitted in with 'the lads'.
We all know at least one: the kind of alpha male who feels the need to exude a macho exterior both on and off the field. The type who gets a kick out of mocking someone in order to get a laugh from the rest of the team. For macho guys like that, the insulting word of choice was, and sadly, in some cases, still is, 'gay'.
I had always known I was different. Deep down, I think I knew I was gay. But I resisted my feelings as I didn't want to be labelled as homosexual at that time of my life. It was a dark secret that I kept to myself.
For years I convinced myself I would marry a woman who was happy to have me and maybe one day we would hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet. Hope made me think that if I managed to live out that idyllic scenario then nobody would be the wiser regarding my sexuality.
Before I was even sure of my own sexuality, I was probably called gay, or worse, 'faggot' on several occasions in the dressing room. I could feel my chest tighten and my palms sweat every time, wondering whether or not I was being accused or just merely falling victim to another joke. I relished the thrill of stepping onto the pitch then just as much as I do now - but the fear of my team mates coming a little too close to my secret made me shy away for several reasons. Would I be found out? Would I be rejected and ridiculed? Or would it be assumed I was attracted to my fellow team mates?
It was impossible for me to trust those who made me feel unwelcome off the pitch.
Was I expected to be comfortable and accepting of those overpowering and domineering figures for sports purposes?
At the start I believed I was. That was just the way of things, or so I thought. And I'll even admit that at times, in an effort to fit in with local players, I also used homophobic slurs. I wanted to play sport. I wanted to enjoy all that came with it, but a 'lads club' culture persisted and I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to tog out, I had to fit in. The pressure to conform, and using the term in a derogatory way myself, was more stomach churning than when it was used against me. In a sense, it felt like self-shaming.
Today's young LGBT community has the benefit of having sporting role models like Olympic diver Tom Daley, former German soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger and former Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova, all of whom were or are at the highest level in their particular field of sport and also happen to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. Here in Ireland we have our own sporting inspirations in the form of Gaelic footballer Valerie Mulcahy, and hurling players Donal Óg and Conor Cusack.
And if we consider Rugby Union alone then we have the British and Irish Lions player Gareth Thomas (who in a recent Guinness advert revealed his own struggles with confiding in his team mates about his sexuality), as well as current rugby union player Sam Stanley to inspire us. With the overwhelming support shown by the Irish nation in this year's marriage referendum we can only hope that more LGBT athletes feel comfortable enough to be themselves in their chosen sports.
You might ask how or why I ended up on the rugby field - surely a rough sport such as rugby isn't where I was going to go to find acceptance. But I was good at tag rugby in school and I had always considered playing full contact rugby. However, I didn't feel I was mentally or physically strong enough.
It wasn't until I was 24 that I took the plunge to join a rugby club. While I was getting to grips with being 'out', I heard a rumour that there was a gay inclusive rugby team in Ireland.
I eventually found out more about Dublin club, Emerald Warriors RFC. I also found that there were inclusive clubs for soccer, tennis, squash and many other sports. I decided first to join the inclusive soccer team Dublin Devils FC. I played with the club for a few years but hadn't managed to satisfy my want to play rugby. The courage it took to join the Warriors came from being asked to join a friend at the open day. I jumped at the opportunity.
First-day nerves were plentiful. Arriving to train with the players was very daunting. I wasn't all that sure what was expected of me in the session. But my mind was soon put at ease. There were men of all shapes and sizes training. Some of them were novices and some were joining to get back into rugby. The open day included some team-building exercises and a few simple drills. After the training session, we joined the current members in the clubhouse. There, we talked freely and I discovered a lot of the players were joining for the same reasons as me. They were simply looking for a club where they could feel comfortable with their team mates. While I was still daunted by the whole prospect of playing a sport like rugby, I was delighted to finally feel the excitement of stepping out on the pitch again - this time, without any inhibitions.
Since that day, I have developed my skills with the club and I now play in a range of positions.
Teams like the Emerald Warriors are doing great work to break the stereotype that gay men don't, or can't, play sports. The fact that the Warriors are an inclusive club begs the question, what separates us from a mainstream rugby club? Are all clubs not inclusive?
I would like to think that the majority of rugby clubs in Ireland are indeed welcoming of diverse backgrounds and sexualities when recruiting players.
The Warriors, however, have taken it a step further by being a registered club within the International Gay Rugby association (IGR), which brings together all registered inclusive rugby clubs and organises international tournaments for the teams.
Next May the Warriors aim to send a squad to Nashville for the 'Bingham Cup'. The event pits inclusive clubs from all over the world against one another. Being a member of one of these travelling squads means that we can be proud to represent our club and country on an international field, and locally the club is registered with and plays under the Leinster League.
Every now and again we are referred to as the 'gay team'. While a lot of the team identify as gay, it isn't correct to call us a 'gay team'. We are a rugby club that is inclusive. We have gay, bisexual and straight players in our current squad. Saying that we are a gay rugby club is ignoring the players in our squad who don't identify as gay.
Our sexuality most definitely doesn't define us on the pitch. Each man on the team is driven to support and trust one another on and off the field. We spend hours of training to act like a singular unit. We are united in facing down the opposition. We back one another up on the field - and we do this knowing we can totally trust the man next to us. In the Emerald Warriors, I've finally found a team where I trust my team mates and friends - both on and off the pitch.