KIERAN SHANNON: Rainbow call a missed opportunity for IRFU

When it comes to knowing and showing how to conduct your affairs properly, the IRFU appear to be leaving every other major sporting NGB or alphabet sporting organisation in the shade.

At the weekend the GAA pulled off the feat of disgruntling both the GPA and the CPA and that’s without mentioning their underwhelming fudge of a proposal for a second-tier football championship.

The inter-county players’ body - like virtually everyone else - has serious reservations about the playing rules that are to be trialled, not least that they’re being tried out in a competition – the national league – that is more important to every county than any second-tier championship John Horan and Central Council seem to have in mind.

The body purporting to represent the club player then had its Roscommon-sponsored ‘blank canvas’ motion mowed down, leaving them now in a similar quandary to where the GPA found themselves over a decade ago; either become radical or die, which effectively translates into either strike or die. But do they really have the backing of the grassroots to mobilise such drastic action? Croke Park obviously doubts that they do.

And then there’s the masters of PR disasters, the FAI - as smooth as the performance John Delaney and the two managers he appointed at the weekend appeared. It’s tough to believe that just two years of Mick followed by however many years of Stephen was always a “vision and strategy” instead of appointments to save face and buy time.

But then you have the IRFU, the class jock, prefect, valedictorian and beauty queen all rolled into one. On Saturday their national team finished up the autumn internationals and the calendar year undefeated.

On Sunday night they could boast having the best side, player and coach in the world for 2018. And then on Monday they smoothly and strategically announced Joe Schmidt’s departure date and his successor, as if to tell their noisier neighbours in the Aviva, ‘That’s how you do it, chaps.’

What was lost, but shouldn’t, was that the IRFU didn’t get it all right last weekend. The brightest kid in the class still blotted some of its copy book, its Colgate smile ringing somewhat false by not affording due comfort for a cause and constituency that deserved better.

Last weekend almost every leading rugby national team in the world made a clear gesture of support for Gareth Thomas in wake of the homophobic hate attack on him, and to offer their solidarity with the LGBT community.

The All Blacks, as masculine a team as you’ll find in world sport, wore rainbow laces in their game in Rome against Italy. So did France when hosting Fiji, Wales when hosting South Africa, while most of England’s players likewise threaded them through their bootlaces when facing South Africa in Twickenham.

A similar gesture of solidarity was made in Dublin at the Aviva on Saturday night. Unfortunately in this case though it wasn’t made by the host side. Instead the USA Eagles had to go solo in displaying a symbol of support for Thomas and the LGBT community.

The IRFU have defended their stance on the grounds they are inundated with requests from many other “worthy causes”, and as they can’t help them all, they couldn’t be seen to favour this particular one.

But yet Wales could. The All Blacks could. England could. France could. The US could. Apparently, we’re not just now better than them at the sport but we’ve higher standards when it comes to clerical consistency and efficiency too. Those poor All Blacks and English and Welsh! Don’t they know the floodgates they’re opening, the precedent they’ve set, prompting every bleeding heart to symbolically support their cause? No wonder we’re beating them! You’re getting sloppy, lads! Sweep the sheds and shred the rainbow shoelaces!

The irony of it all is that the IRFU has been ahead of virtually every other sport in this country when it comes to understanding the sensitivities of various communities and just how powerful symbols can be.

You might scoff at Ireland’s Call instead of sing along with it but the IRFU have rightly persisted with it because they appreciate the team’s own captain Rory Best and his community will hardly bellow out Amhrán na bhFiann.

Its players’ body, formerly IRUPA, now Rugby Players Ireland, ran and still provide the brilliant Tackle Your Feelings campaign and service, which not just supports the emotional well-being of its members but also highlights the importance of mental health among the general population.

And yet at the weekend its national governing body obviously lost sight of the fact that so many of the people who have suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies are people with a similar sexuality to Thomas’s, not least because they are susceptible to the kind of verbal and physical assaults which he and his friends were subjected to in Cardiff.

After the solidarity of support from the other leading rugby teams at the weekend, Thomas tweeted how he was “humbled” by such “an immense sign of inclusion”. How he interpreted Ireland declining on making such a gesture we don’t know; he didn’t tweet or comment on it.

But it hasn’t been lost on some people here how in a sport that constantly plays and sings about a world in union, and in a country that just two years ago was comforted and took comfort by the huge outpouring of support and love for Anthony Foley from the international “rugby family”, a former Lions captain wasn’t followed out that tunnel by the green shirt.

Former Cork hurler Conor Cusack has been on the receiving end of verbal assaults on account of his sexuality; four years ago while out with a friend, someone in the middle of a 30-minute verbal barrage threatened to slice open his throat and cut off his nose. People to this day have no idea how hard it is to come out, to be true to themselves which is why he feels the IRFU have no idea of how much a gesture of support from them at the weekend would have meant.

“There’s this idea since the [equality] marriage referendum that the world is looking great for people who identify as LGBT but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I know from personal experience it’s a lot easier in this country to say that you’re depressed than it is to say you’re attracted to someone from the same sex or that you’re gender neutral.”

Cusack is not easily offended. He has an issue with the term ‘homophobia’ being used liberally; often before he ever came out he would hear the word ‘gay’ being bandied about the dressing room without anything intentionally malicious about it. But he’s heard more mean-spirited slurs about his sexuality, and not just when he was in the room. 

He knows of one county underage team a few years ago when a mentor cajoling his troops to get back up on their foot during a gruelling training activity yelled “Ye’re falling too easily – we don’t need faggots like the Cusacks on this team.”

That mentor clearly had no idea of the sexuality of at least one player within earshot – and no idea what a dagger through the soul that was.

“That’s why people have to realise how important it was that Gareth Thomas did what he did,” says Cusack. “There’s a lot of things going on that you don’t hear about but he was able to stand up and say what he had been subjected to.”

The anger Cusack felt towards them has subsided since the weekend. Just like he wouldn’t press charges against the person who verbally assaulted them –“I learned that person had a lot going on in his own life” – and Thomas didn’t press charges against his assailant – “it might have been the first time that [16-year-old] lad was shown a bit of kindness” – he feels the IRFU are entitled to some restorative justice themselves.

Next time, just do better. Be better. Be more aware, like you’ve shown in Tackle Your Feelings and more.

The GAA are making advances in the area. Cusack has served as a member of the association’s national health and wellbeing committee and even since vacating that seat has met with Colin Regan, the GAA’s community and health manager, as has Dublin

All-Ireland winner Nicole Owens.

At some point next year the GAA hope to appoint a cultural and diversity officer that will support a range of communities, from immigrants to travellers to LGBT.

You might never know what it’s like to walk in their shoes to appreciate that they should never be left to walk alone.

On one count at least the IRFU could learn from some of their its classmates.


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