Life is difficult for Ulster’s newest rugby team. The Titans gather in pitch darkness on a freezing November night to listen to their coach’s latest game strategy. They huddle closer, as it is difficult to hear with the whir of the rented generators that power their portable lights. For the last two years, the Ulster Titans have been training on a potholed piece of wasteland on the outskirts of Belfast. With no facilities or floodlights, the players have to be careful and hope they don’t collide with their team mates during their warm up sprints.
The players’ sense of humour shines through the adversity. The team captain Duncan Neill from Glasgow shouts that he is going to go get some patio heaters out of his car to help keep the biting wind at bay. I stupidly ask is he serious. “It’s a joke,” he says with studied patience. “We may be gay, but we’re not that gay.” The Ulster Titans are also Northern Ireland’s only gay sports team. The small matter of a lack of training facilities is a minor annoyance for the players. They are just delighted to be able to compete in the sport they have grown to love.
In most parts of the world, highlighting the feats of a gay rugby team would be unnecessary. However, this is Northern Ireland. The Rainbow Project works as a support network in Belfast for gay and bisexual people and regularly helps men who have been victims of homophobic attacks. This summer, they reported that 39% of gay people in Northern Ireland alter their behaviour to avoid others knowing that they are homosexual. John O’Doherty works as an equality officer for the Rainbow Project and feels the achievements of the Ulster Titans should not be underestimated in a closed society like Northern Ireland. “The reality of Northern Ireland is that we still don’t talk about sexual orientation, homophobia is the last acceptable prejudice here, thankfully, the Ulster Titans are helping to stop some tired stereotypes with their rugby.”
The simple act of coming out as a homosexual in Northern Ireland remains fraught with danger; never mind competing as a gay team in the unforgiving basement of Ulster rugby. Belfast coffee shop manager Sean McEvoy smiles at the memory of setting up the rugby team. He had little idea of what playing rugby entailed and his limited sporting experience lay in schoolboy gaelic football. However, three winters ago, he became hooked on rugby. He is not sure why, but the collisions, the skill and the fraternal elements all helped. He watched as many games as he could, whether that was Bangor Casuals or Ulster at Ravenhill. Two years ago, after a few false starts, he got a core of gay men who wanted to play competitive sport in a safe and welcoming environment.
Sean is a persuasive man. He needed a coach for his inexperienced team and enlisted the help of a female work colleague’s husband. Former gym manager Noel Henry still remembers receiving the phone call from his wife two years ago telling him he was going to coach a gay rugby team. “My wife told me I was to come and help a bunch of guys who had set up a team and had no rugby knowledge,” he recounts. “Then she said, ‘oh by the way they’re gay’, and put the phone down.” He laughs at the memory. Like many husbands before him, Noel did as he was told. Besides, Noel is a rugby fanatic who was simply delighted to help a group of enthusiastic players, regardless of how limited their abilities were.
Their honeymoon season last year was a rude awakening. Noel could not hope to build moves into his game plan when his fly half didn’t know how to kick and his flanker sometimes forgot to pass the ball backwards. In their first full season last year, the Ulster Titans played 14 games, scored 30 points and conceded 976. The worst record in Ulster by a country mile. However, the results were insignificant compared to the respect they were gaining from Ulster’s hardened rugby heartland.
Trinity science graduate Níall Mc Meenan believes the team has used their sport to change attitudes. “We are simply trying to get respect out there on the field, if other teams can see how much we love our rugby; then maybe we have been able to change some minds out there.” The Titans love their post match pints. They normally take opposing teams back to a Belfast gay bar and get some Saturday afternoon karaoke going with a middle aged drag queen. The players from the small unionist fishing village of Donaghadee were some of the most enthusiastic revelers they have ever hosted.
This season, the team is finding it increasingly difficult to compete. They have received minimal help from the Ulster Branch and getting 22 men togged out every week is proving harder as the evenings close in. At training the Titans are preparing for what could be their biggest game of the season against the PSNI 2nd XV. The police are rooted to the bottom of the table, but the Titans’ coach is realistic about their objectives. “We will just try and score some points and enjoy our rugby out there.”
The skill levels of the Ulster Titans vary wildly. They have some talented schoolboy players and more complete novices who are just trying to catch the ball. The team is still chasing that elusive league win and has conceded some cricket scores already. The team scrum half Duncan Neill believes they have a long tough season ahead of them in Ulster’s Minor League. “We do have problems certainly, it’s never easy trying to get a new team off the ground, the gay community is generally supportive, but it’s getting hard to recruit players when we are doing so badly, on paper we’re awful, but it’s taking those small steps.”
The final whistle is blown, piercing the cold night air. The players gratefully gather the cones and trudge off the pitch. They have no shower facilities, so they climb into their cars caked with mud. Most players have little idea what the season holds in store for them. They simply play rugby for the joy of it. Sean McEvoy says things are improving, but he still wonders how some opposing players will react to his team. “In this country, we are great at making fun of ourselves, but I get the impression some opponents are on eggshells with us. You can imagine their coach yelling at them before the game not to make any remarks to the gays. You give and take abuse off the rugby field and that’s the way it should be. Beat each other up for eighty minutes and then come and party with us afterwards-that’s always been the name of the game.”