TOKYO (Reuters) - Apart from the rainbow-coloured socks and pride flag flying next to the pitch it looked like any other rugby match, with players smashing into rucks, spinning passes wide and leaping at lineouts.
And for the teams taking part in Saturday’s International Gay Rugby (IGR) event in Tokyo, that is just they way they wanted it.
The first match of the IGR’s International Inclusive Challenge Weekend saw World Barbarians RFC take on the Beijing Devils, with the game played less than 40 kilometres from where England beat Argentina at Tokyo Stadium in the Rugby World Cup.
The IGR’s first tournament in Asia involved players from over a dozen countries and was aimed at promoting inclusion and tolerance through sport, said IGR chair Ben Owen.
“Our teams are going out there and saying, ‘We are LGBT people playing sport,’” said Owen.
“The first time that you win against a team you see in their eyes ‘they beat us’. You know you have earned their respect.
“You have gone out and you have changed people’s minds about what LGBT people are, what LGBT people can do and we just want people to see we can play rugby like everyone else.
“It is all we have wanted to do and we are really glad we are able to do that.”
Not all the players in the tournament identify as LGBT but that is the point. The IGR’s 84 member clubs see inclusion as their core value and everyone is welcome.
“Rugby brings unique camaraderie, something that you don’t get in any other sport inside the U.S.,” said Mark Jordan, a player from Minnesota.
“You get the opportunity to play with people from around the world, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what colour you are, or what style or brand of rugby you actually play.
“You just show up, stand next to your brothers, play a full match, have a great time and then drink beers afterwards.”
Saturday’s tournament came a day after the IGR signed a memorandum of understanding with the Japanese Rugby Football Union to “foster inclusivity and diversity programmes”.
Following a ceremony attended by Japan’s first lady Akie Abe, the JRFU became the fifth union to sign the memorandum with the IGR, which is partnered with World Rugby.
William Howell, president of the Worldwide Barbarians Foundation, said World Rugby had been incredibly great supporters but he wanted them to take a more active role.
“I would like to see them incorporate more of the inclusivity, more of the tolerance in language into their training,” he added.
“I would like to see more of the home unions really step up and say ‘we will back you up, we will be behind you’.
“Currently, we only have five home unions that have signed a memorandum of understanding that says they will combat homophobia in sport. Five.
“There are a lot of the unions that still need to take that step.”
Rugby’s efforts to foster inclusion took a hit this year when Australia winger Israel Folau was banned for posting on social media that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers” and others.
However, with former Wales captain Gareth Thomas and current World Cup referee Nigel Owens coming out as homosexual, Howell said others involved in the sport might begin to feel like they can follow suit without fear of being sidelined for the game they love.
“With what Gareth Thomas has done, with what Nigel Owens does at the refereeing position, these are very vocal, brave people, who have said it doesn’t matter,” said Howell.
“We need to be able to provide our players with the same type of confidence that they could do that.
“Give them the structure, give them the background that they could say, ‘I could be like that.’”
Editing by Peter Rutherford