Mark Twain once said: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Bet he’d never been to Manchester — the coldest I’ve ever been at a rugby match was last Sunday, the first in June, at Broughton Park Rugby Club, home to the sixth Bingham Cup — theworld championship of gay and inclusive rugby.
Wet, windy, muddy and bloody freezing, but the warmth of the welcome I receive says more about the event and participants than the conditions. They’re here to play hard, party hard and have a good time, whatever the weather.
to take a look at the climatic stages of the Bingham Cup, named after Mark Bingham who died in United Airlines Flight 93 on 11th September 2001.
Bingham’s narrative, like many of the victims, is a poignant one. He had slept late that morning and almost missed the flight from Newark to San Francisco, boarding it as the flight closed. Exactly what happened on that plane no one will ever know, but a tapestry of telephone conversations and cockpit recordings suggest that Bingham was a central character in the passengers’ mutiny. Perhaps, thanks to Bingham, flight UA93 crashed into a field in Somerset County instead of the Pentagon or the White House, as history suggests it was intended to.
A rugby-playing West Coast public relations entrepreneur, and a Berkeley graduate who had once fought off an armed mugger, Bingham’s untimely death cast him as the first openly gay American patriotic hero.
His friend, Hani Durzy, told The Observer that he was someone “… who knew how to use his size and would get into situations without thinking about it — which used to amuse us and scare us. I think he knew himself that he was not anyone’s idea of a typical gay man”.
The crevasse between the words ‘typical gay man’ and rugby once used to be seismic but is now narrowing thanks to the efforts of Ben Cohen and former Welsh captain, Gareth Thomas.
Cohen told the Guardian:
“I’m passionate that anyone, regardless of their background, should be able to play rugby. Events such as this tournament show how rugby has become more inclusive and it also helps break down barriers and bring more people into the sport.”
Cohen retired from rugby last year and set up the Stand Up Foundation to tackle homophobia and bullying. “As athletes, it is not enough just to have strong bodies,” he told Pink News, Europe’s largest gay news service, “we must have strong characters and use our voices to support those who need and deserve it. Attitudes must change. Young people should not be bullied into taking their own lives.”
More than 30 clubs from 15 countries are represented, with 1500 players and fans making the trip to Manchester, the city that thinks — according to the print on the ‘goody bags’, — that a table is for dancing on.
It’s a bit unusual to walk into a rugby club bar and, for your first observation to be two bearded blokes having a snog, but I’d primed myself for this possibility, so I look for the positives: hey, it’s a one-stop shop — rugby, beer… yep and a bit of how’s your father, if you’re that way inclined.
There’s a media room with a table groaning with sandwiches, savouries and cakes but no press seating area outside so I decide the best way to get to know what’s going on is to mingle.
“This is my third Bingham,” says John, who plays for the Newcastle Ravens. “Two years ago we were in Minneapolis, my… that was pretty cool!” A mud-caked bloke carrying a tray on which six beers precariously balance squeezes past me remarking to a mate: “Ooh! Doesn’t she cut a dash in mustard?”
The biennial tournament, founded by the International Gay Rugby Association and Board (IGRAB) began in Washington in 2001. The King’s Cross Steelers, “the oldest and most loved Gay Rugby Club in world” — according to their website, was founded in 1995. The plate final is an all-British affair with the Steelers edging out Manchester’s Village Spartans to lift the trophy.
There are several tiers of competition catering for a breadth of playing standards commensurate with the relationship between on-field and off-field activity, but in these conditions it’s not easy to sort the wheat from the chaff.
All feeling has left my fingers as the final gets under way, and soon the Sydney Convicts are camped within the San Francisco Fog’s 22 with a howling gale at their backs. The standard is significantly higher than in the plate final with both sides showing ambition but unable to retain possession or develop any continuity.
The Convicts’ fly-half (my one criticism of the event is that there are no programmes so naming players isn’t easy) slots a penalty and then crosses for the first try, which he converts himself to give his side a 10-0 interval lead. San Francisco pull a try back after the break but this is wiped out when the Convicts’ fullback goes over a minute later.
The Fog concede a penalty try to make the score 22-5 and the Convicts play out the final minutes in the San Francisco 22 before the referee mercifully blows the full-time whistle to trigger the stampede indoors to the warmth of the Broughton Park clubhouse.
Convicts’ President David Whittaker said: “The standard improves every time, so it gets harder to win. Our preparation was top notch but it’s always tougher than you think it’s going to be. We all have very sore bodies!”
And Gareth Thomas tweeted: “A great day of finals rugby at Bingham Cup. Sure the party is gonna be a wild one!!!”
Once feeling returns to frozen limbs — you betchu!