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Dublin: 11°C Friday 26 February 2021

'There isn't an openly gay professional player in this country'

The Emerald Warriors will host the Union Cup in Dublin this summer.

AS WITH MOST rugby clubs around Ireland and the rest of the rugby-playing world, the Emerald Warriors’ Whatsapp groups have been discussing Israel Folau in recent times.

The Warriors, an inclusive rugby club based in Dublin’s LGBT community, understand the negative effects of the homophobic post that Folau shared on Instagram – and Billy Vunipola’s subsequent defence of it – better than most.

Major progress has been made in Irish rugby becoming more inclusive and the Warriors are thrilled to be hosting the Union Cup - Europe’s biggest LGBT+ inclusive tournament – in Dublin on 8 and 9 June this summer, in conjunction with the IRFU.

Nigel Owens with the Emerald Warriors RFC Emerald Warriors players with Lindsay Peat and Nigel Owens at the recent launch of the Union Cup. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

But comments like those from Folau are damaging to the efforts around the world to ensure that gay people feel comfortable getting involved in rugby. They’re also simply damaging to the LGBT community in general.

“Massively so,” says Richie Fagan, a player with Emerald Warriors and the chair for the 2019 Union Cup.

“It’s scary because we feel at times that we’ve come so far, particularly here in Ireland with the marriage referendum and the work we’ve done there, then you realise how much work there still is to be done.

“It was upsetting to see those comments and it’s scary some of the players that liked his post, but it does reassure you when you see that the reaction from the majority is that it’s not good enough. We’re extremely grateful to see the reaction.

“We welcome the actions of Rugby Australia and thankfully this is not something we experience every day. However, it does exist and there have been plenty of times where we have experienced that kind of carry-on on or off the pitch.

“The level of skill that Folau has, the professional type of player he is on the pitch, it’s hard to put the two together. It’s hard to think that guy would have a side to him that’s stuck in the dark ages. We’re in 2019 and that mindset is somewhere in the dark ages.”

Fagan cites figures from a Sport England paper in 2016 to underline why homophobia is such a danger to rugby and other sports.

Just 17% of people within the LGBT community surveyed were members of sports clubs, while the paper highlighted a study showing that 84% of gay men and 82% of gay women had experienced the use of homophobic slurs such as ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’ in their sports.

“It’s even about the language that people use and making sure there’s no micro-aggression,” says Fagan. “It’s at the forefront of my mind now, around those words that are used around slagging even from a small level.

21587003_1729375334024218_5167360956006267968_o Source: Emerald Warriors/Facebook

“Zero tolerance to homophobia is what’s needed and that’s what we’re working hard to show with the work we do.”

Fagan stresses that Irish rugby has come very far in terms of being inclusive and welcoming to the LGBT community, but clearly there is much more to be done.

“There isn’t an openly gay professional player in this country,” says Fagan.

“We do know of other [gay] players that are at club level who come on tour with us but play for different clubs during the season.

“So rugby in Ireland is quite inclusive but the success of our club nearly shows that there is a need for more inclusivity.”

Emerald Warriors, who also welcome heterosexual members, have made real growth since they were founded in 2003, taking pride in their 90% retention rate of players.

Membership numbers have developed to a current 150, with the club now fielding two teams in the Leinster Metro Leagues. 

Fagan, who joined the Warriors in 2012, says his involvement with the club has changed him as a person.

“I never thought I’d be coming up to this level of engagement in bringing the Union Cup over but it’s taught me so much personally and instilled amazing inner strength. I developed from quite a shy personality and it’s helped me character build.

“There’s no doubt it helped me hugely. The sense of community in our club is phenomenal and my team-mates are friends for life. The friends you develop on any rugby team, that’s quite special.”

Gordon D'Arcy, Katherine Zaappone, Richie Fagan, Lindsay Peat and Nigel Owens Fagan, centre, at the Union Cup launch. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Fagan came through the Warriors’ pathway programme, which has seen many complete newcomers to rugby developing into important players for the club. The Warriors now make presentations to other clubs within the IRFU and Leinster Rugby to highlight their work and Fagan says “the support has blown me away.”

Unfortunately, despite the progress, the Warriors have been discriminated at times over the years.

One opposition club even refused to share showers with the Warriors after a game.

“We’d never got that before and haven’t since, so it was very difficult to explain that day,” recalls Fagan. “It would scare you at times because you’re thinking, ‘How is this still a problem?’ It’s just ridiculous.”

There has been an element of homophobic slurring on the pitch very occasionally too, which the Warriors have always tried to rise above.

On the whole, however, Fagan is positive about where inclusivity in Irish rugby is going. He hopes to see more female and LGBT representation on club committees and boards, as well as at higher levels of the game, to bring more balance to decision-making. 

Securing hosting rights to the Union Cup was a huge deal for the Warriors and with the IRFU and partners like Bank of Ireland, Vodafone and Guinness on board, there is major excitement for the tournament at DCU in June.

The Warriors are keen to showcase a “modern, changing Ireland” to the visiting international teams. For the first time, there will be a women’s tournament in the Union Cup, which has been running since 2005.

“We’ve learned that it’s not until you diversify something that it can grow and that’s what we felt with the Union Cup,” says Fagan. “We felt we had to bring women into the tournament and it’s been really successful. Our partners are as excited about that as us.”

20900858_1720386271589791_3446369423489920244_o Source: Emerald Warriors/Facebook

Fagan and his fellow organisers are pushing to sell-out tickets for the Union Cup, feeling that it is “important to bring the public in to see the serious level of LGBT rugby.”

Looking further into the future, Fagan has high hopes for the Emerald Warriors and the LGBT community in rugby.

“We want to play our part in what the government have been talking about, getting people more involved in sport by 2027,” he says. “We have a serious part to play in that.

“We want to change that stat of 17% of the LGBT community being involved. We want to do our own body of research, which we will do, in the LGBT community and sport, and we want to come back with recommendations on how to change that.

“Also, we don’t have our own grounds yet. We’ve been lucky to be taken under the wing of a number of Dublin clubs but we have a serious need to have our own home club and that’s the ambition.”

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Murray Kinsella

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