23 October 2011
London

Rugby, the game that personifies New Zealand’s macho homophobic culture, is now a thing of homoerotic fantasy – mostly thanks to Sonny Bill Williams.

Kudos to my old friend Dean Knight, a law lecturer who’s currently elegantly slumming it in London on sabbatical to write his PhD, who, in between redrafting his first chapter, has been performing two very welcome civic acts: one is providing an unofficial Zagat guide to the coffee houses of London; the other has been creating a Facebook Page entitled “Queer Eye for the Rugby Guy”, in which he’s been compiling a “dream team” of rugby players, based on the players’ physical hotness, willingness to take their shirts off and show off their tribal tattoos, and general fuckability. (I’m sure some assessment of rugby-playing skill has come in at some stage, but I’m not clever enough to know much about that). Dean has been a long-term flag-waver for gay visibility in rugby, and helped set up NZ’s first rugby team in the mid 1990s, the Krazy Knights (who were partially named in tribute to him), and his inclusive, “can-do” love of rugby has done a lot over the years to counter my own, more complicated history with the game.

Although QEFtRG may seem slight, whimsical, or simply the product of a horny academic who’s looking to kill time in between proofreading an academic tome, it strikes me as serving a valuable social purpose. Rugby, at least as it was enshrined in my New Zealand childhood, was the prime ritual for defining heterosexual masculinity. Real men played rugby; if you didn’t, you were “weird” at best, a sissy or a faggot at worst. Rugby players were deified into god-like creatures to whom we were all supposed to aspire to be. Rugby coaches would regularly growl “You’re playing like a pack of girls” when things were going badly. In response, generations of homos, including me, tried to define their sexuality in terms of their disattachment from rugby, which seemed to represent everything about heterosexual masculinity that we didn’t like: violent thuggery, rampant drunkenness, brute force over intellect, and the disturbing psychology of blood sport.

In the last 20 years, I’ve been lucky enough to live through (and now observe from a distance) something of a sea change in rugby culture, which in turn seems to have transformed New Zealand culture generally. The rugby powers-that-be have done a lot to clean up the game’s image, reprimanding the culture of booze and fighting among players on and off the field – the much-quoted Kiwi-ism “What goes on tour stays on tour”, (referring to rugby teams keeping a code of silence about booze-filled orgies and “stag night” behaviour while playing games out of town) is now becoming an anachronism, rather than a cheerfully reported “boys will be boys” fact of life.  Prominent rugby players including Anton Oliver have spoken out against domestic violence, still a massive problem in New Zealand, especially after the All Blacks lose a game. (Even now, though, women’s refuges brace themselves for an overload of emergency calls from battered wives, girlfriends and children on rugby test match nights).

More interestingly, the nature and sexual appeal of rugby players themselves has changed.  Traditionally, rugby players, like New Zealand men generally, used to eschew self-consciousness, get their hair cut twice a year (if that), bale hay in their spare time, play manfully on the field, bleed stoicly, and be limited to saying things like “At the end of the day, rugby was the winner”. Any transgression of this code was reprimanded sharply – when former All Black Graham Thorne took the somewhat random decision to perm his hair in the early 1970s, it caused a national meltdown: as fans cried “Curls are for girls”, Thorne’s masculinity was called into question, and it was generally felt that he was letting the team down.

Oh, what a change 20 years have made. Rugby players, like sportsmen in many other games (Mr Beckham leading the charge in football) have all become himbos. The physical training of rugby players appears to have changed so that their physiques are now closer to that of weightlifters (or porn stars), and marketing now focuses self-consciously on the attractiveness of their bodies – all rippling muscles, strategically waxed chests (all the better to show off their muscle definition) and tribal tattoos designed carefully to enhance their super-pumped pecs, deltoids and biceps.

I’m not sure whether this has been lead by the increased commercialisation and professionalisation of the sport, with slick marketing campaigns working to turn star players into products, or whether it reflects a wider change in heterosexual masculinity generally and the new sexualisation of masculinity. One theory about the beefcake-isation of rugby is that it reflects the increased interest and influence of women as consumers and spectators. As more and more women come out of the cave, look around and think “This isn’t so bad”, and as the sexualised female gaze becomes more and more confident, the objects of their affection have followed suit, sculpting and modelling their bodies for public consumption. (For more on this one, see Mark Simpson, who’s made a career out of coining and writing about metrosexuality).

The joke of all this, especially for the long-term bachelors among us, is that once the male body is put on display, there’s no controlling who might start staring lasciviously back. Though it’s by no means a universal attraction, many a gay man admires the muscled physique and (facade of) alpha-male aggression exhibited by sportsmen, whether they’re splattered with mud and bruises on a sports field, or cleaned up, strategically oiled and showing their arse in an underwear ad. Rugby has mostly persisted in trying to keep the gaze away from the gays, insisting on the heterosexuality of its star rugby players, and occasionally draping a woman over the torso of a sweaty male hunk in a rugby mag photo shoot just to underscore the point. For the most part, gay men aren’t having any part of it. Many of the highly sexualised images of modern rugby players look largely indistinguishable from the imagery of gay porn, so it’s not surprising that the new beefcakeism has attracted a gay male rugby-watching audience who are interested in what’s in the player’s shorts than whether or not they’re offside.

The French, who’ve happily embraced male narcissism for years, were the first out of the blocks to realise that money could be made out of the relationship between gay men and rugby players, resulting in the highly successful and outrageously pornographic Dieux du Stade (translation: Gods of the Stadium) calendar, featuring (mostly) French rugby players in various states of undress, proudly preening and flexing for the camera, re-enacting scenes that are the staples of gay porn (wrestling matches, dropping the soap in the shower, sharing a bed with your twin/lookalike), and occasionally getting their willies out. From what I understand, all the player/models are avowedly straight – many of them leave their wedding rings on in the photos, which often becomes the only thing they’re wearing – but they seem to have reached a new high point (or low point, depending on your point of view) in male narcissism: it doesn’t matter who’s staring admiringly, as long as someone is. Some marketing genius realised that even more money could be made releasing the “Making of” DVD for each calendar, where you can watch the muscled oiled lovelies in real time, sneering silently as they submit to standing around in the buff and being drenched with mud, oil and dry ice, all in the name of male beauty. Thank God it’s partially for charity. The Anglo-Saxons have taken a bit longer to catch up, although the lovely and very lickable English rugby player Ben Cohen has done his bit for sexual objectification of rugby boys by cheerfully baring his muscled, hirsute hunkiness for his own range of charity calendars, mouse pads, and coffee table books (all printed on wipe-free paper). Mr Cohen gets extra brownie points for channelling some of the profits from his home grown soft-porn industry into his own foundation to stamp out homophobic bullying in sport, which seems like a win-win situation for everyone.

Back in Noo Ziland, the All Blacks haven’t quite caught up with this gayification of their cherished national game – which is where Dean comes in. Through his cheekily observed site, Dean has collated and recorded every tumescent, throbbing inch of beefcake from this year’s Rugby World Cup which might be of interest to a gay male audience – in other words, most of it. This year’s cause celebre was undoubtedly the undressing of Sonny Bill Williams, a hulking specimen of South Pacific manhood with an extremely impressive muscled torso and a strikingly detailed tattoo sleeve covering most of his right arm. Like Janet Jackson and other misunderstood sex objects before him, Sonny Bill suffered a “wardrobe malfunction” midway through a game, in which his custom made (and incredibly gay looking) skin tight rugby jersey got ripped, requiring him to be stripped to the waist onfield and redressed by a grim-looking handmaiden with a frizzy Janet Frame hairdo. For once, the usually tentative Television New Zealand sports cameras didn’t veer away from the sight of a half-naked man on the field, and left the camera on Sonny Bill as he stared vacantly into the distance, no doubt unaware that he was being ogled by millions. Some kindly soul had the brilliant idea of posting Sonny Bill’s striptease on YouTube in slow motion, so we could see and revere every rippling inch of flesh. Needless to say, I’ve watched it quite a few times.

One of the crusty old male TVNZ rugby commentators even made a comment about the fineness of Sonny Bill’s physique – in a thoroughly unsexual way, of course. The circle of sex and sport seemed, in that moment, to be complete. No one was in doubt that Sonny Bill was an object of desire, and judging from the mass sexual hysteria generated since, no one (except possibly my parents, who object to public nudity) seemed to mind.

Dean has been instrumental in reminding rugby audiences everywhere that it’s not just the ladies who find Sonny Bill and his hulking companions desireable. His diligence was rewarded in a front page mention in the New Zealand Herald this weekend, reporting on the QEFtSG “dream team” selection, and even engaging in the debate by noting the exclusion of one-time hottie, captain (and occasional underwear model) Dan Carter.

On one level, Dean’s work is harmless, slightly dirty-minded fun. But I’m enormously grateful to him, not only for providing me with weeks worth of wank material on a daily basis, but for his wilful subversion of the straight world’s assumption that only straight people watch rugby, and that only women look desiringly at men. From a very early age, I learned to keep my sexual desire for men carefully hidden, or at least coded, to avoid what I fairly accurately assumed would be the disapproval and contempt of a homophobic society, or worse still, the threat of physical violence for being pervy enough to openly express desire for another man. Years later and several hundred notches on the bedpost since then, it’s something I’m still a bit circumspect about, so I welcome Dean and his unapologetic admiration of the rugby boys, which helps normalise the queer eye in a still very heterosexually dominated sport and national ritual.

I’ve had a recurring theory since my late teens that we’ll only really know that New Zealand has evolved for the better when we get our first openly gay All Black. Statistically it’s likely that at least a few All Blacks have done more than a bit of towel-flicking at each other, and one does hear rumours from time to time about happily married rugby players who fancy a bit of cock on the side. (In most cases, I helped spread those rumours). With the relatively recent coming-out of Welsh player Gareth Thomas, hopefully this will inspire other rugby players to follow suit. Until then, Dean and his Facebook collection of soft-core rugby porn will hopefully fill a void, and continue to make it more acceptable to think of “gay” and “rugby” in the same sentence.

At the end of the day, rugby will hopefully still be the winner. Hopefully the gays will be winners too. In the meantime, since the All Blacks are playing the French in the final, maybe Sonny Bill and his friends could get some tips from the Dieux du Stade boys on how best to work it for a calendar shoot…

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