There has been plenty to celebrate in New Zealand rugby over the past few days.

Two wonderfully absorbing Super Rugby matches between the Hurricanes and Highlanders, and the Blues and Crusaders, hinted once more at the depth of talent in this country, and the All Blacks announcement on Sunday morning confirmed it.

But the best moment of the week came yesterday, when New Zealand Rugby announced plans to work with other sports to lead new initiatives that are far more important than on-field results.

The initiative, which will see New Zealand Rugby work closely with other major national sports bodies including league, cricket, netball, football and hockey, was clearly signalled during the weekend's "Diversity Round" and is a great step forward for New Zealand's major codes; an indication that they rightly see their role not just as vehicles for entertainment but for the promotion of understanding and acceptance in the wider community.


There are some who view organised sports - especially the oval ball codes - as a safe haven for misogynists, racists and bigots, where beer can be swilled by the bucketful and jokes about gays and women can be shared with appreciative and booze-soaked audiences.

The critics are half right: those kinds of people are very much alive and well and coming to a pub or club near you. I can tell you this because I have met them.

I can also tell you that they have no place in the game I love, nor in a society that wishes to promote compassion and understanding, and that initiatives such as the one announced yesterday do so much to support the real fans who have felt in the past intimidated by these people, or too afraid to speak up. Now the sports themselves are speaking up, and that has the potential to be enormously empowering.

Here's a tip or two for those who are still to be convinced. Women play rugby, and they play it very well. Anyone who watched the Hamilton Girl's High School team win the Condor Sevens tournament last year, or who has watched the Black Ferns in action, or a single minute of the women's sevens world series could tell you that.

Women also know the game just as much as any bloke does. If you have ever been fortunate enough to listen to the legendary Anna Richards or Farah Palmer, for whom the women's provincial championship has just been named, or Melodie Robinson, my diligent, smart colleague at Sky Sport, who incidentally remains the only member of our regular commentary team to have won a World Cup (she won two), you would know that. That is, if you can get past the fact they don't go to the toilet standing up.

And while we're at it, Maori and Pasifika players are just as smart as the pakeha boys, and you can take my word for that, too. They are also unfailingly courteous, community-minded and are largely driven by a deep and genuine humility. Does any of that sound like something we shouldn't be celebrating?

As for homophobia, go and have a look at the best from the week's Bingham Cup in Nashville. If you can tell me about a tournament played in a greater spirit than that one, I'm there. Ah, but THEY aren't tough enough for rugby, the emotionally stunted among us sneer. Really?

Mark Bingham, founder of the Gotham Knights, New York City's premier gay rugby club, and the man for whom the Bingham Cup tournament is named, was one of the passengers who attempted to thwart the hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. He lost his life along with 43 other passengers when the plane crashed short of its intended target. He was a braver man than I, that's for sure.

So three cheers to rugby, and all the other organisations who have agreed to make their sports safe havens for understanding and intelligence, compassion and respect; places where all people can shine, and where fans can be brave, knowing that they can take a stand against bigotry and racism and sexism, and that when they do, they will be supported from the very top.