Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Gay fears need tackling, says former rugby player

New Zealand rugby stars should not feel ashamed of coming out, believes former top gay player

Former top rugby player Ryan Sanders said he felt smothered hiding his sexuality as a sportsperson in NZ. Photo / Doug Sherring
Former top rugby player Ryan Sanders said he felt smothered hiding his sexuality as a sportsperson in NZ. Photo / Doug Sherring

A former top gay rugby player says life inside New Zealand's NPC environment was "suffocating and emotionally draining" and a gay All Black represents an important "last hurdle" for the sport.

Ryan Sanders, who represented Buller and Canterbury B in the early 2000s, never felt comfortable enough to reveal his sexuality during his playing days and even had "fake girlfriends".

Sanders, who also played professionally for Edinburgh, feels that New Zealand rugby remains one of the last bastions of discrimination by sexual orientation.

"It is super important now that the environment evolves," Sanders told the Herald on Sunday. "We are making a lot of steps forward in terms of sexual equality and, with rugby being New Zealand's No1 sport, it is the last hurdle that we need to take."

There have been several examples of gay sportspeople coming out in recent times - in the NBA (Jason Collins), the English Premier League (former German international Thomas Hitzlsperger), the Welsh rugby team (Gareth Thomas) and Olympians (British diver Tom Daley) - but there has yet to be a high-profile rugby player in this country.

"I know the gay All Black thing gets brought up a fair bit but I think it would be amazing if someone does come out - I am sure there is one or two," says Sanders.

"It's the last hurdle but it will take the right person with broad enough shoulders to be able to bear that initial brunt. It's crazy when you think how long ago Ian Roberts (former Manly, NSW and Australian forward) went public (in 1994). I remember that and thinking 'wow, that is really cool'."

Sanders feels there has "definitely" been a gay All Black at some stage, though no one has ever come out publicly.

"The value will come when an All Black comes out during his rugby career," says Sanders.

"I can honestly say that would have made a massive difference to me. For me, it would have been huge if I was young and growing up and an All Black had come out as gay."

Sanders says he has also heard rumours around a few gay Super 15 players but is unsure if they are true or not.

"I think there are definitely a lot more gay people playing rugby - it is one of the last bastions of sexual inequality."

In his own career, Sanders had the rugby world at his feet at the start of the last decade. At the age of 22, he was named Buller's Player of the Year in the 2000 NPC season. A promising lock, he had received the same honour for his senior club side and was later drafted into the Canterbury B team.

Sanders, who had also made several age group Canterbury sides, was marked with potential. But life inside a rugby environment was "suffocating" and he felt he had to hide his sexuality.

"I kept it to myself - I didn't come out ... you have to be pretty guarded," says Sanders. "You have to watch what you say and what you do. You have to be always on your guard, which can get quite tiring and it can take a toll emotionally.

"If I felt I was able to come out at that stage and still continue playing, then that would have been ideal, but I didn't have the confidence to do that at that stage of my life - it was far too daunting."

Sanders says he was a "very masculine kid" and surrounded by rugby from a young age but still went to the extent of having fake girlfriends to try to fit in - and even ended up dating one of his coaches' daughters.

"I had a few different girlfriends and that was definitely to hide and not to be suspected as being gay," says Sanders.

"In hindsight, I shouldn't have done that but it just felt like the easiest way not to rouse suspicion. Having the girlfriends was a challenge in itself though and probably caused more issues than it solved - especially when one of my coaches' daughters took a liking to me and we began dating."

Just a month after he graduated from university, Sanders bought a one-way ticket to the Northern Hemisphere, feeling it necessary to escape the pressures of home.

"Rugby was going really well at that point - I had been named player of the year by both club and my NPC team and played some games for Canterbury B," says Sanders.

"I should have stayed, in hindsight, and pushed ahead with rugby but I felt suffocated and needed get some breathing space."

Sanders says his rugby ambitions in this country were always going to be stymied by his sexuality, as he was unsure about the level of acceptance.

"As I got older, it was hard to take my rugby as seriously and I guess the gay stuff did play a factor in that," says Sanders.

"In hindsight, I wish I had pushed ahead with the rugby more - I think there was a real opportunity there but it wasn't the best move for my own personal development."

Sanders, a schoolboy team-mate of former All Black Chris Jack, played for Edinburgh for three seasons before a series of injuries curtailed his sporting career.

He didn't come out to his Scottish team-mates either but enjoyed the more liberal atmosphere of Edinburgh, which had a well-established gay scene. Sanders then forged a successful banking career in Britain, before returning to New Zealand to start Haka Tours.

The adventure tourism outfit has twice been named as New Zealand's No 1 tour operator and Sanders was recognised nationally as the Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010.

- Herald on Sunday

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