In a modern society that is constantly reminded of its ever increasing waistline, the onus is on many of us to make sure we are getting a sweat on and keeping fit. Large numbers take to the gym, but for the rest of us who cannot self-motivate and will all too easily use the steamroom ahead of the treadmill, team sport is a hugely valuable way of ticking the fitness box – as well as improving our social lives.
Rugby union is a sport where the nature of the team as a whole is crucial to success on and off the pitch. On 1 November 1995, a meeting at Central Station in King’s Cross resulted in the creation of the world’s first fully inclusive rugby club for gay and bisexual men – the King’s Cross Steelers.
Having spent the last two years working my way into the professional game as a reporter and broadcaster, I recently linked up with the Steelers to host a ‘Beer with Ben Cohen’ event at Clapham’s Two Brewers, and was kindly invited to the team’s Annual Dinner. Through those events I discovered a tremendously cohesive group of guys and a very proud club – plus how to lose my dignity in XXL…
In their 16-year existence, the Steelers have made great strides. In 1999 they played their first inter-gay team match against Manchester’s newly formed Spartans, a club that continues to act as their UK rivals. They also achieved recognition from English rugby union’s governing body, the RFU, and joined the Surrey County League. By 2001 the Steelers had enough members to be able to field a second team alongside the firsts. Mainstream accolades followed, with Rugby World magazine naming them as ‘Team of the Month’ in 2002.
The Steelers have also played an important part in promoting gay rugby union worldwide, having helped create the International Gay Rugby Association and Board (IGRAB). IGRAB now has over 40 member teams around the world, with eight of those spread throughout Britain and Ireland. Next year Manchester will host the 2012 Bingham Cup tournament, IGRAB’s showpiece international event. In a sign of how seriously IGRAB is being taken, Manchester’s bid was supported by former England Rugby World Cup winner Ben Cohen.
Another international tournament, the Union Cup – a biennial competition for European IGRAB members – has shown just how hard the team works to stay at the top of its game. At this year’s Union Cup, held in Amsterdam in early June, the Steelers won two pieces of silver; the second team came third overall in the tens tournament, while the first team retained their position as champions of Europe by defeating the Manchester Village Spartans in the final game.
Meeting many of the players and members as I have done, it is clear that rugby is at the heart of this club. Yes, it is a gay (or, rather, predominantly gay) rugby club, but there is probably less homo-eroticism in the Steelers’ changing room than you would see in any number of straight rugby clubs up and down the country! Like any other rugby club, from players to supporters, there are all shapes and sizes; some butch boys and some camp guys alike. Chairman Tim Sullivan explains: ‘The ethos that we have here at the Steelers is one of inclusiveness. All are welcome at this club. Since our formation we have striven to ensure that whoever comes to the club is made welcome. Whether as a player or a supporter, gay or straight, we are very proud of each and every member of this club. It is an essential part of our success.’
Those who pull on the team’s colours every week are equally passionate. One player, Dean Knight, told me, ‘the Steelers are a great bunch of guys and it’s a great setup. There’s some excellent rugby talent, as well as support for novice and emerging players and both teams measure up well against the mainstream teams in the local competitions. But the best part is that the rucking, mauling, tackling and passing is all done with heaps of gay gusto – there’s nothing like a bit of cheeky gay banter thrown in to remind everyone that the Steelers provide a welcoming and supportive club for gay ruggers to play the game they love.’
I can certainly bear witness to the warmth that the Steelers exude, and the fun that they have on and off the pitch is certainly infectious. They have achieved a great deal in their sixteen years and their spirit of inclusion is testament to their success – long may it continue
If you would like to become part of the King’s Cross Steelers as a player or supporter, visit the team’s website; you can also follow them on Facebook and on Twitter @KXSRFC. Nick Heath can be found on Twitter @rugbymedia.