Wednesday 19 December 2018

rugby likely to stay firmly in the closet


SLEDGING in Cork rugby tends to fall some distance shy of Wildean. Though former Ireland prop and Ballyphehane native Phil O'Callaghan was noted for his on-pitch sallies (a referee once famously told Phil he was boring in the scrum to which O'Callaghan replied "you're not too entertaining yourself, ref"), in general, verbal intimidation down south tends to lean heavily towards rather rudimentary abuse.

The rugby-playing students of UCC are more well-heeled than most in Cork but, when a Trinity captain on the end of a beating at the Mardyke was heard to exhort his troops with the once more unto the breach line of "C'mon guys, let's rouse ourselves!", the UCC response was the simple, yet effective, "G'wan ya steamer..."

Roughly translated, 'steamer' refers to a homosexual and many of the insults traded on rugby pitches operate within that sphere with phrases that do not deserve to be repeated here.

The sporting week has been dominated by reaction to Cork goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack coming out last weekend and, while that revelation was pre-planned for maximum impact and book sales, it was also incredibly brave.


Cusack has not retired from hurling and, though no stranger to abuse from opponents and terrace heretofore, it is now open season on the Cloyne man when he takes to the pitch again.

You could not see it happening with a high profile rugby player.

There is a homosexual referee -- Nigel Owens -- who was honoured at a gay awards ceremony in 2007 as 'Sportsperson of the year' and Dublin has a gay rugby team, the Emerald Warriors, who have hosted the Mark Bingham Memorial Cup, often referred to as the 'Gay World Cup'.

However, though there have been players who have come out as homosexuals post retirement, there are no examples of prominent players declaring their homosexuality during their playing careers.

For, while such a step requires a tremendous amount of fortitude in any sporting environment, in rugby -- that most alpha male of activities -- such a move is nigh on inconceivable.

The nature of rugby requires its practitioners to be extremely comfortable with the male form. Take the scrum where tight binds include grabbing props by the shorts and between the legs and putting your head between the hips/backsides of the men in front of you.

Collapsed mauls are not for the claustrophobic and lifting in the line-out can involve boosting your target by the buttocks.

Long before Celtic soccer players or GAA teams took up the practice, hugging was de rigeur in rugby. In the dressing-room, on the half-way line before kick-off, under the posts after conceding a try -- the phrase 'bring it in' is one all rugby players are well accustomed to.

Of necessity, the sport requires a familiarity with close physical contact and rugby dressing-rooms are not an environment for the shy or insecure. Rugby players are frequently mocked for the 'flicking wet towels on the backside' mentality, but though the taunting can be exaggerated, it is rooted in reality, while it is also true that various antics of rugby teams on tour frequently involve an element of nudity.

To compensate for all this 'bonding,' rugby players, somewhat paradoxically, push an exalted sense of their own heterosexuality and players' tales of their prowess with members of the fairer sex are as obligatory as they are competitive.

Statistics decree a percentage of rugby players are homosexual, but, while rugby is not overtly homophobic, it undoubtedly leans in that direction and to come out in such an environment would threaten the balance of a slightly skewed world.

Cusack deserves enormous credit for declaring his homosexuality while still pursuing his playing career.

It is a brave act that could inspire other Irish sportspeople to follow suit -- just don't expect it to happen in rugby any time soon...

Irish Independent

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