As Israel Folau jogged onto the pitch for his first match for the Catalan Dragons, he was met with a wall of boos.
The talented rugby player’s views against homosexuality led him being fired by Rugby Australia in 2019, scrabbling a 1 year contract in France, a country known to pay for players as their career ends.
Any onlookers not understanding the boos would have quickly realised the reason from the numerous rainbow Pride flags being waved in Folau’s direction. The stands however were not filled with only gay rugby players and fans. The rainbows were poignantly held by everyone, in support of peoples’ right to be themselves without prejudice.
In a sporting world still rife with discrimination, it was a sight to behold. But what has put rugby and its fans so far ahead of other sports in inclusivity?
Having competed in numerous sports – cricket, badminton, white water kayaking, table tennis, etc – I can attest that there is no sport quite like rugby. Not for the game itself, but for the unique bonds it brings between individuals.
It is the only game consistently requiring you to selflessly to throw your body on the line, risking physical harm and injury for people you may barely know. Whilst mad to some, this creates relationships between teammates like no other sport, and brings with it an unspoken understanding and respect from opponents and spectators alike.
This respect has nothing to do with who you are. Your size, your speed, your ability. It’s about your attitude, effort and teamsmanship. The nonsensical ‘issues’ of race, body shape, gender and sexuality that all too often come to the fore in the sporting world aren’t a factor.
This culture of focusing on attitude stems from the locker room. A team is made up of people of all shapes, sizes and builds. Those that in other sports may get rejected for being too overweight or small, can find a place on the rugby pitch. Everyone has something of value to offer. A team’s inherent understanding of this means that there is no room for intolerance or prejudice in rugby.
You quickly see from this how other sports differ, often with narrow requirements on physique and technique to warrant acceptance. This isn’t to say that everyone in rugby is perfect, nor that all other sportspeople are bad. However even at a cursory glance the regularity of instances of discrimination in the sports world shows there are major issues. Where else could you imagine such reactionary camaraderie from both officials and supporters?... Tennis?...The Margaret Court Arena suggest not….Football?...People are too scared to even wear rainbow laces. Wigan RFC on the other hand announced shortly after Folau's signing that their match in March would be their official Pride day.
So overall, you can be big, small, black, white, gay, straight, whatever; as long as you’re a team player. However you can be as talented as Israel Folau, but if you devalue and disrespect others for who they are, rugby doesn’t want you.