By Max Towle for The Wireless
In October, 1998, two teams played a bruising game of rugby in south Wellington. To a stranger wandering past, there was nothing remarkable about the match - there were some clumsy passes, tired legs and borderline tackles. But history was being made. This was the world's first inter-gay rugby match. The hosts were the Krazy Knights, containing gay men from all walks of life - a trainee lawyer, a counsellor and the future Minister of Sport. They were smashing stereotypes and expressing themselves in a way they had never done before. This is the story of how that team came to be, and its match against another gay team from Ponsonby, told by those who were there.
In early 1998, Dean Knight forms a gay men's rugby team. It is named the Krazy Knights
DEAN KNIGHT - KNIGHTS FLANKER:
The idea happened during my last year of Law School. I was doing my OE in London at the end of 1996 and while I was there, I had a great time playing for a local gay rugby team. When I came back, I thought one should be setup in New Zealand. So I contacted some friends and paid for a classified ad in the local paper.
ALAN WENDT - KNIGHTS LOCK: Dean was and is my boyfriend, so I was roped into it straight away.
GRANT ROBERTSON - KNIGHTS NUMBER 8: The third time Dean asked me I finally agreed and said I would play as long as he let me choose my position. I wanted to play Number 8 as I'd spent most of my rugby career typecast as a prop.
JEREMY BAKER - KNIGHTS WING: I was a friend of Dean's. I'd actually met my partner because of him. I'd never played rugby before - but at 27 or 28 I was really keen to try new things. Dean was clear I wouldn't have to be top class.
HARP HARDING - KNIGHTS HOOKER: A friend mentioned there was a gay rugby team being put together so I gave Dean a call. I thought it would be great to meet other gay men, too. I've played rugby from the age of nine and still play the stupid game.
JEREMY: I thought it was a cool idea and a step forward for the gay community. It was something to do that was different from just going out drinking and clubbing.
GRANT: For those of us who had played a bit of rugby before, it also helped us shed some of our bad memories of rugby culture and create new ones.
ALAN: The time was right for a group to counter some of the narratives and stereotypes about being LGBT, and in particular for gay men about sport.
GRANT: There were a lot of guys who had perhaps grown up hating the culture of rugby and this gave them such a great opportunity to change that.
ALAN: There was a sense of courage and bravery when we first met up. Those who hadn't played rugby before were excited about trying it in a safe environment where they weren't going to be judged, but rather celebrated for being gay.
DEAN: Seven or eight people turned up at Kelburn Park for our first practice and we had a bit of a throw around.
We had a couple of big Samoan and Māori front-rowers, but our locks were really short. We didn't have many tall boys.
JEREMY: I'd never played before so I was put on the wing because I was fast.
HARP: Because I knew a lot about the front row and forwards, I stepped into a sort of coaching role with them so Dean could focus on the backs. Just teaching them to throw and catch a ball was hard enough. We were trying to put together a team that wouldn't get smashed every weekend.
DEAN: The Evening Post was quickly onto us and ran a big story called "Play and be Gay", which led to us recruiting a few more.
JEREMY: There were things I didn't enjoy, like evening training sessions in the freezing cold, but the games were something different to do on a Saturday morning than just going to brunch.
The Knights play their first game
Our first match was against a team that called themselves "The Straight Ups". They were mostly friends of ours keen to help out the cause.
ALAN: It was an invitational team captained by Dean's older brother. I was slightly annoyed that Dean scored the first try. I mean for God's sake - the team was already named after him.
DEAN: I can't remember the score but I'm pretty sure we didn't prevail.
ALAN: The game wasn't a pushover, though. And they didn't hold back. I think they might have done the first 10 minutes, but once they realised we were serious and wanted to win, they played hard. I also think they might have been a bit worried about losing to a team of gays.
GRANT: That was my first game for a few years. It was certainly a bit of a shock remembering what it felt like to be tackled. I woke up the next morning wondering what on earth I had done. We lost that first game by a large margin, but that just helped build up our camaraderie.
We had some very talented sports people like Dean and Harp, but we lost often. I think I only scored one try in all the games. My best talent was probably passing the ball to others.
HARP: One of our players worked at Onslow College, so for one game we got a few lads from their First XV to fill-in. At first they were a bit dubious about playing with a bunch of poofs, but once they came along and realised we didn't fit that stereotype - we just slept with different people - they were great.
ALAN: Nerves - for all of us. There were guys who were both in and out of the closet at the time. For some, this was a really big deal and a massive leap of faith to put themselves out there. I was excited to see a few people on the sidelines rooting for us.
DEAN: It was fun but there was also a bit of emotion. I'm not sure we fully realised at the time we had started something quite significant.
ALAN: One of the big things for me was finding out the bathrooms were the most boring place and weren't sexualised in any way. In the past for other teams, I'd tried to keep my head down and ignore all the banter about bathrooms and soap on a rope.
DEAN: For a few of us - the guys who had played rugby - it felt quite acute to bring together two aspects of our lives that had previously been separate.
A Ponsonby team is formed
GAVIN HYDE - PONSONBY PROP:
I was playing for Ponsonby in 1998 when I saw an article about Dean and the Krazy Knights. I put up a few posters in bars and nightclubs in Auckland saying I wanted to put a local gay team together and got a few people interested. It was actually very easy to put a team together. We were called the Ponsonby Heroes.
JAMES KOLOSE - PONSONBY SECOND FIVE: I'd played league when I was young and some touch in my twenties, but after I turned 30 I wanted to play something more physical. I saw one of Gavin's notices and signed up straight away.
GAVIN: We had the support of former All Blacks Bryan Williams, who was Director of Rugby at Ponsonby, and Lin Colling, who was one of the managers. They gave us access to the club's resources and were very helpful.
BRYAN WILLIAMS - FORMER ALL BLACK: We were pretty supportive of the fact gay rugby players wanted to play for Ponsonby. We welcomed anyone with a great love of the game. They always came to the club rooms after games and enjoyed themselves.
JAMES: Ponsonby is quite a prestigious club that everyone wants to play for. A lot of All Blacks have come through there. I'm proud that Ponsonby has always been inclusive and they still keep records of the Heroes and often mention our players at official functions. That feels really good.
Our first hit-out was against my previous team and was pretty horrendous. We lost about 100-nil. I think a lot of the guys were just finding their feet after about 15 years away from the sport.
JAMES: We had a lot of new people. I learned a lot of patience and tried to help some of the other guys do simple drills and that. I think we lost just about every game early on.
GAVIN: In July, I contacted Dean and we arranged for our two teams to play.
DEAN: There was quite a bit of publicity about the game.
ALAN: Paul Holmes, for instance, did a piece about us. I think he saw the novelty factor in a bunch of poofs running around on a rugby field and my face was plastered over the news. No one really knew I was gay until then. My family got a bit of backlash because of the publicity.
JAMES: There was more publicity in Wellington. Up here in Auckland there were only just whispers about there being a gay rugby team.
GRANT: Everybody knows that rugby culture in New Zealand has traditionally been a very macho thing and wasn't seen to be very inclusive. The publicity was about being able to say yes, we're gay, but we also want to be part of something that's very much a part of our country's culture.
The Heroes game came about quite quickly.
DEAN: We needed a grandstand because we knew there would be spectators, which is why we chose Rugby League Park in Newtown.
JAMES: Oh man, it was good. It was so exciting being the first.
HARP: It was more than just a game of rugby.
Krazy Knights vs Ponsonby Heroes
It was a long Labour Weekend so we all piled on a bus driven by one of our guys and drove down to Wellington on the Friday. A few of our guys had some pretty big nights on both Friday and Saturday.
JEREMY: I can't remember much from that weekend other than the game and that's probably why.
GRANT: There was a big dinner on the Friday. Our grand plan was to get the Auckland guys out so they would be worse for wear come Sunday.
JAMES: I don't drink or do drugs, but some of the other lads certainly would have, and gone to some of the local sex places too.
GAVIN: We had quite a few green faces when we turned up on Sunday.
JEREMY: There was a good crowd and a good group of people from the gay and lesbian community. There was actually a lot of pressure on the Knights to win.
ALAN: Annoyingly, I was sidelined by a knee injury brought about by a bit of an alcohol-induced accident. That was heartbreaking and frustrating.
JEREMY: A lot of their players were drag queens, but when they took off their dresses and makeup and put on their shorts they were some pretty scary and fierce Māori and Polynesian guys. They were great players, too.
DEAN: Our team started with a haka.
The first half was good and clean. Dean scored and I scored. We were up 15-0 at the half.
GAVIN: There was a raging southerly and the wind was blowing incredibly hard. In the first half we (Ponsonby) played into the wind. It was all territory.
JAMES: We made a lot of mistakes early on and I think nerves got to us as well. We didn't play well until the last 20 minutes or so.
GAVIN: For most of the second half we were basically camped in their 22'. With about 10 minutes to go we scored the decisive try and it was converted it as well. We won 17-15.
HARP: Come the second half, Ponsonby came out to smash us. Dean and I kept asking the referee what the hell was going on. They were doing head-high tackles and weren't playing clean. We almost had a fight. I got knocked a few times and charged at their players. I was really annoyed.
GRANT: There were some slightly dubious calls, but everyone would say that.
DEAN: I just remember it being hard. There were some really tough tackles.
JAMES: I don't think they were used to our physical play. I was quite a physical player and so were some of the other Ponsonby boys. I think that caught them off guard and they were frustrated by not scoring again. We were a way better team. That scoreline should have been a lot better for us.
GRANT: It was definitely the cliched game of two halves. Ponsonby were a good team, and while they hadn't spent as long together as we did, pound for pound they were bigger and that certainly had an effect on some of our more tired players later in the game.
JEREMY: We were a little bit gutted to lose by only two points. I was absolutely exhausted by the end.
We shouldn't have lost. We had that game and just couldn't finish it off. Late on I just couldn't get to an inside pass near the line that would have won it.
ALAN: It was great to see guys expressing themselves through rugby and feeling safe enough to really go for it and not be threatened by ideas of masculinity and how the game should be played. It was also a real sense of achievement that, simply, New Zealand was in a place where two gay rugby teams could have a match. It felt like we were knocking away at the temple of rugby.
GAVIN: Having grown up in Wellington literally just across from the park where we played - and where the Hurricanes now train - it was emotional because it felt like a statement in terms of my personal progress, and our progress as a community.
DEAN: I actually remember that night better than the match. The local gay bar Bojangles put on a special party for us. The mood was very relaxed and convivial. Lies were told about what had happened - how far people had run and about incredible tackes.
HARP: I remember pulling their captain aside after the game and having a go.
JAMES: There were speeches and presentations. The Knights were great hosts.
GRANT: Sunday night was really the moment I felt, despite having lost, that we had achieved something significant. I have this great memory of a big group of our players gathered in the middle of Bojangles dancing and celebrating and right then it really did feel like we had been part of something special.
JAMES: Afterwards, there were notices about the game in a lot of gay magazines. My partner lived in Australia at the time and he read about it. There were even stories in England.
Both teams reunite a year later
The next year, both teams marched together in the annual gay and lesbian Hero Parade in Auckland. That was really special.
HARP: The parade was a bit more low key than Mardi Gras, but it was still another way for us to express ourselves.
ALAN: It was just was another public declaration of what the team stood for - a sense of community and adventure through sport.
DEAN: About 8-to-10 of us drove up with our banner and we put our kit on. It was just a nice coming together and sense of fellowship between the two teams.
ALAN: We marched the whole way grinning. We were throwing a few balls around and a few into the crowd.
The crowd was really excited to see us, but that didn't stop them from keeping some of our balls.
JAMES: We (Ponsonby) marched with our big hero flag. Our tallest player - our second rower - was in drag and marched in front. We were all dressed in our gear going down Ponsonby Road. It was great.
ALAN: At the time, I didn't know a lot of other Samoans who were out. So for me, marching in the parade and being surrounded by all of these dressed-up gay guys and dykes on bikes made me feel a part of the gay community.
Unfortunately, the Knights didn't last.
DEAN: It was difficult to sustain because there wasn't a particularly big pool of players to draw from.
JEREMY: I think the reality was not enough of us were serious rugby players. Frankly, many of us were a little older and couldn't play rugby forever.
ALAN: Wellington's quite a transient city and relatively small so you need committed guys, which we just didn't have. It was hard to maintain our momentum and keep recruiting people, so we started a touch team.
HARP: A lot of our later games were also quite physical and I don't think some of our guys were up to it. Some of them hadn't played any contact sport before, let alone rugby. But the touch team kept some of the guys together.
GRANT: The bodies were a bit worn out so touch rugby was a little easier for us. Our team ended up going to the Gay Games in Sydney in 2002, which was a massive thing for us.
HARP: We came fourth at the Gay Games. That was amazing, just brilliant. I remember seeing it was going to be in Sydney and I said it doesn't matter what we do, we've got to go. Luckily there was a touch comp.
GAVIN: The Heroes went on to play club rugby as part of Ponsonby until 2004. As with any group of predominantly homosexual men there were some pretty big egos and bigger personalities, but it was a great bunch and a good team. We did have a few straight players and also some transgender players. It was that mix and inclusive spirit that kept us going so long.
JAMES: I played for Ponsonby for another five or so years until it disbanded. Then I ended up playing with the NZ Falcons from 2013, which Gavin helped set up. The Falcons are still going as New Zealand's gay rugby team.
For me, the Knights changed my life as I met my partner, who also played in the team. It's always a good joke to be able tell people not to stereotype as I met my partner playing rugby and anything's possible.
ALAN: Sport can seem like this domain that feels inaccessible when you're growing up. Team sport can bring out physicality and aggression and that can be quite off-putting when you're just worried the boys will think you're looking at them the wrong way.
GRANT: I wasn't out when I was playing rugby before the Knights, but I did find the dressing room could be homophobic and was one of the things that was really discouraging.
DEAN: I've usually felt welcomed by other teams, despite some uncomfortableness. Do I think I was targeted in rucks or been subjected to trash talk? Yes. On the field, homophobia and trash talk happened.
HARP: My teammates at my last club all knew I was gay but it just wasn't really talked about.
GAVIN: I've encountered teams that have defaulted or not turned up or had unnecessary aggression on the field, but you just get on with it. A big part of rugby is how you deal with adversity.
GRANT: I think rugby is definitely a lot more inclusive now and is a different game. But 20 years ago it was pretty groundbreaking to have a gay team. As Minister of Sport, I've already been pushing for a much more inclusive approach to the way sporting codes operate - anyone who wants to be a part of sport should have the opportunity to do so.
ALAN: At the time, people thought we would never have a gay All Black. Now, New Zealand Rugby is running diversity programmes and I think better acknowledges that there is work to do around LGBT rugby players and shifting stereotypes.
DEAN: I think what's likely is we'll have a young guy who has a boyfriend and has been out since his teens putting his hand up to be selected for the All Blacks because he's just so damn good at the game. We, the NZRU, the rugby community and fans, have to make sure that guys like that are supported. We know athletes are at their best when they're happy in their own skin; honest, open and relaxed about who they are.
BRYAN: I'm sure we're ready for a top rugby player to come out as gay. It's already started to happen and I'm sure people won't bat much of an eyelid.
DEAN: We may not have realised at the time, but we were in the vanguard of what would become an incredibly significant movement around the world. It's been quite something to see what has come after that sunday afternoon game of rugby. At this year's Bingham Cup - the international gay rugby tournament - we're looking at having 85 teams and 1500 players coming together to play some very high quality rugby. Those are some incredible numbers.
ALAN: We were trying to show that anyone can and should be able to play sport. Homophobia is still rife and sport can be a difficult community to break into. I was a young brown guy trying to discover and rationalise my sexuality. I grew up in the church and went to a public school. By playing for the Krazy Knights, I was reinventing myself to others, but also cementing who I was. It changed people's view of me, particularly in the church.
GRANT: We owe a lot to Dean. This was his vision. He stills plays rugby today, which I think is amazing considering the battering he's been given over the years. When you need to break down barriers and address stereotypes, it takes one person to really stick their neck out, and that's what Dean did.
We've talked about having a reunion this year because of the 20-year landmark. A handful of folk have talked about marching in a parade. I hope we do something.
HARP: I live in Miramar now and still play touch with a few boys from Weta. I'm teaching a few American and Canadian guys how to play.
GRANT: I'm still friends with a lot of the guys and we tell stories from back in the day - many aren't publishable.
HARP: Through the whole thing I met about five people who are still some of my very best friends. At the time I was just happy to be a part of a team that meant something. I was there to meet like-minded people and do something positive for the gay community. And beat Auckland.