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Ottawa Wolves Women v World Barbarians Women, with the author refereeing. (PHOTO: Jay Smidt)
Ottawa Wolves Women v World Barbarians Women, with the author refereeing. (PHOTO: Jay Smidt)

SportsJune 30, 2018

For the love of the game: a Kiwi ref goes to the gay rugby World Cup

Ottawa Wolves Women v World Barbarians Women, with the author refereeing. (PHOTO: Jay Smidt)
Ottawa Wolves Women v World Barbarians Women, with the author refereeing. (PHOTO: Jay Smidt)

The Bingham Cup, known as the ‘gay rugby World Cup’, took place in Amsterdam earlier this month. Aucklander Jack Cottrell was there as a referee – until a devastating injury reminded him that rugby can be as cruel as it is beautiful.

On an unseasonably hot afternoon in Amsterdam, the Southern Barbarians are practicing for the Bingham Cup. Made up of the New Zealand Falcons, the Sydney Convicts, the Christchurch Heroes, and sundry other club rugby players, the team has three days to gel before competition.

They pass a ball around, saying what experience they have in what position.

“I’ve played with the Falcons for four years. I was a wing, now I’m at hooker.”

The ball passes on.

“I’ve played for 36 years, flanker or centre mainly”

The ball passes on.

“Um, I started playing three months ago. I think I’m a lock?”

The ball passes on.

Amsterdam Lowlanders (left) v Washington Scandals (right) and me in the middle (PHOTO: Kevin Combes Washington Scandals RFC)

Beyond an obvious passion for rugby that has brought them further than any other team to the tournament, these players of such disparate experience have something else in common – most of them are gay.

That ‘most’ is important. The Bingham Cup is referred to as the ‘gay rugby World Cup’ but the teams bill themselves as inclusive – there is no requirement to be LGBTQ+, only to play rugby in a spirit that welcomes LGBTQ+ people to the game.

I have come to the tournament as a referee from Auckland. There is no budget to bring in referees, so I paid my own travel costs. So have others – Hamish Bertram, the newly elected President of the small society of inclusive referees – flew from Melbourne. Four have come from London, two from Ireland, one each from Italy, Belgium, and Germany.

Michael Assman, head of referees for Rugby Nederlands, has been tasked with coordinating the match officials. Even before the tournament he has learned that ‘inclusive’ is a double-edged sword. Mike agreed to 40 teams. By kickoff, the number has swelled to 70 men’s teams and four women’s.

Kickoff for Amsterdam Lowlanders (PHOTO: Kevin Combes Washington Scandals RFC)

Referees are grabbed from clubs all over the Netherlands. One very green ref, in town from rural NSW to watch his son play for the Convicts 1st XV, is pressed into service. Youth players are trained as touch judges. Tournament director Remo Calzoni, a tiny man who in his playing days must have been the very definition of a chippy halfback, helps with the appointments. Mike’s partner Edith handles everything else for the more than 40 referees. She tells us where to pick up lunch, helps us get to the grounds, washes our kit if we are staying in hotels, and buys beer for the open house which follows days one and two.

The tournament is staged over a week of social events and three days of competition. The number of players alone is over 2500, and with the small army of supporters and volunteers involved, there is no venue in Amsterdam big enough to fit everyone for the opening and closing ceremonies.

A week of partying and rugby takes an emotional toll on everyone. While some clubs have multiple teams, most inclusive rugby players rarely see a lot of other gay people with the same passion for the sport. Everyone goes too hard, too early, and there are plenty of waterworks. Teammates look after each other, with hugs and snarky jokes.

On the first day I make the bus at 6:45 to get to the referees tent by 7:30. We are not in the most salubrious location. The floor is made of wooden pallets, though we are grateful there is a floor, since the tent is pitched in a sandpit.

We have been put in teams of three – between us we will officiate seven 40-minute games over the day. This seems easier than it is. The eight pitches are across three locations – one of which is a 20 minute jog from the tent. On Friday I work with Nathan and Nicholas, who are both originally from New Zealand. The games are divided into three tiers, and the top-tier teams are going out to make a statement. They are rugby first, party once the final is won.

There isn’t much time for me to enjoy the atmosphere, which is a cross between a sevens tournament and Big Gay Out. There are bars, food trucks, music, and a spa bath in the volunteers area. But I have come to referee a rugby tournament; everything else is a sideline.

And the Bingham Cup, for all the party trappings, is very much a rugby tournament. Players throw punches, captains swear blue under the posts when their teams concede a try. Love may be love, but there is no love lost between rivals on the pitch. Particularly fierce is the match between the San Francisco Fog and the San Diego Armada. The Armada win, though the Fog make them do it tough.

There is a women’s tournament for the first time, and I referee one of the games. The pace is slower, as the teams work through their second game of the day. Ottawa loses to the World Barbarians, though I am cheered when players from both teams say I’m their favourite referee of the tournament.

After play wraps up and we have our debrief, Edith and Mike invite us all to their place. We bring meat to put on the barbeque, cram ourselves into the small courtyard out the back, and drink beer. The air is thick with rugby talk: which teams did what and are on for which playoffs, who among us gave out cards, who made the worst howlers. We talk about wives and husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends. The consensus is that no one of any gender really wants to go to a game just to watch the referee – even if the referee is married to them.

Saturday is a struggle to get up and ready for the bus. My feet hurt, my roommate gets a sleep-in, and I have to hunt to find my watch. Another seven games, including refereeing one on the main field featuring the hosts.

My team of three is made up of me, Tim – who is actually from Amsterdam – and Jeff Wilson. No, not that Jeff Wilson, this Jeff Wilson is originally from the US and has been the voice of International Gay Rugby to the World Rugby decision-makers for years.

We find our groove quickly, moving across all three pitch locations. I work as hard on the line as I do in the middle and am gratified to see Tim and Jeff do the same. This is the joy of the Bingham Cup: being part of a team, part of great rugby, and part of something far bigger than myself. The vibe infects everyone, and midway through day two the referees from disparate clubs, societies, and nations are feeling the love as much as anyone.

Yellow card number two for the Lowlanders (PHOTO: Kevin Combes Washington Scandals RFC)

The highlight of my tournament is refereeing the Amsterdam Lowlanders versus the Scandals from Washington D.C. The main stand is packed with people cheering the hosts, and I am not a popular figure when I give one a yellow card early. The game is close, the Lowlanders are two points up early in the second half when I sin bin another player for a shoulder charge in the 22. Their coach complains I am only looking one way.

Coaches are the same everywhere.

The Lowlanders break the Scandals’ line in the final minute to win 12-5, and I come off the field knowing my performance was as good as I’ve ever refereed.

The appointments team, late that evening, agree – I am allotted to a final. The Challenger Spoon, the lowest division final in the tournament, but a final.

Sunday morning, and everything hurts. My legs are weary, my blisters have blisters, and I am tired. Referees are dropping as quickly as the players through injury, exhaustion, and real life duties. Edith hands me my freshly washed kit, and a coffee. I put my name down for as many games as I can, and get ready to do it all one more time.

The system is starting to fall apart. Twenty minutes before my final I need an assistant referee, and frantically grab Jonathan, who was originally at the tournament only as a coach. He agrees to do one more game.

I meet the captains from Portland and Leeds. We toss the coin, shake hands, and kick off. This is their World Cup Final. And mine too.

Five minutes in, as I run to yell “roll away” at a tackle, a player bumps off an opponent’s shoulder and trips into me. His forehead slams into the back of my skull, and in the blinding flash I see my tournament ruined.

Jack Cottrell being assisted by medics after becoming injured whilst refereeing a match.

I lie on the ground, my head pounding and my neck sore. I know I should go to the hospital. But all I can think of is the months of work, the thousands of dollars, the shield final I am meant to assistant referee later in the day. With no need to be staunch, no requirement for traditional rugby masculinity, I cry. The first aid team holds my head steady, ARs John and Jonathan hold my hands. I only met these men on Thursday, but I trust them enough that I agree to get my neck scanned. John sits stroking my arm until the ambulance arrives.

The CT scan takes time, and as I wait for the radiologist to read the report I watch the minutes tick away. When it becomes obvious I won’t even see the cup final, I’m devastated.

It’s all over by the time I’m cleared to return. Players stream from the tournament grounds as the now five-times champion Sydney Convicts celebrate. I’m in tears again. Tournament director Remo pulls me close and says he will get me to wherever the Bingham Cup will be in 2020. Edith and Mike’s teenage daughters, who delivered my wallet to me in hospital, and whose house we referees have essentially taken over for three days, pat my back as well.

Kangaroo court is in session, out in the sand behind our tent. Edith has been given judgement rights, and she says no charges will be brought against me for being late. Referees hug me tight and pass me a beer while I dry my eyes.

As it draws to a close, I look at all of us. Most haven’t had time to shower, and many still sport their on-field kit. We are sore, sweaty, dirty, sunscreened and sunburned.

The sheer size, the number of games, the spirit, and the love that permeates the Bingham Cup makes it an intense experience. My fellow referees range in age from 16 to 60, have sexual orientations of every hue. And we’re all part of this. Gay rugby has made teams from strangers and given people families. It has produced club stalwarts, rugby fanatics, great sports, and heroes. It has helped vulnerable people realise that they are not alone in who they are and who they love.

Court ends and we slowly begin to pack up, unwilling to leave, trying to hold on to the weekend for as long as possible.

Then Mike asks for the last word. Still in his rugby gear, he looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks.

“This has been an incredible tournament. I’ve never experienced anything like it. When Remo asked me to organise referees for 40… 50… 74 teams, I didn’t didn’t know if it could be done. And I certainly couldn’t have done it alone.”

Taking Edith’s hand, he drops to one knee in the dirt out the back of the officials tent.

“Will you marry me?”

Their daughters scream. We referees do too.

“Are you serious?”

“I’m serious.”

There is no ring. There was no time to get one. There is only the Bingham Cup, there is only rugby, and there is only love.

Edith says yes.

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