As the sun sets purple and pink over Rushcutters Bay, Sydney Convicts club president Don Rose stands and delivers his final instructions to the playing group. Moments ago their second hit-out of the season concluded with a gruelling 100 meter 'suicide run,' the final act in an hour or more of intense cardio. There is little energy left for banter.
"If you're wearing Convicts gear remember you're representing the club and the jersey, so don't do anything stupid," he says. The players respond with a chorus of onya Donnie and the like.
This weekend is Mardi Gras, one of the biggest gay pride marches in the world, in what is arguably the most LGBTI friendly city in the world. The Convicts will have a float and Don urges anyone interested to join but warns, don't blow it. As the best gay and inclusive rugby club on earth, the Convicts have a brand to protect.
Founded in 2003, the Convicts have since won three Bingham Cups (the name given to the gay rugby World Cup in honour of Mark Bingham, the gay rugby player who became an American hero when he stormed the cockpit of a hijacked airliner on 9/11) and last year claimed their third premiership in the otherwise straight Sydney suburban ('subbies') rugby union competition. Player turnouts are through the roof for 2017 and the Convicts are expecting their best season yet.
"Lots of people typically think if you play for a gay team it's all about dudes looking at each other in the showers and feeling each other up on the pitch," begins Rob, aka "Posh Rob" (because he's English). "Actually, we're all competitive individuals who just want to play a game," he says.
Rob was a talented player in the UK, representing at county level as well as the national English National Students rugby sevens team. He played in the top teams at school and university for more than a decade but never felt he could come out as gay.
"It was never an option for me to be like, oh guys, you know, I'm gay. That would have ceased all playing for me," he says.
"It was too inconvenient. I didn't want to stop playing rugby. I didn't want to stop spending time with my friends who were in the team. I lived in a house with six other rugby boys," he says.
He saw first hand what happened to players who did declare themselves gay or bisexual. He recalls the time his team played the only team with an openly bisexual player in it and the abuse the man copped from Rob's team and their supporters.
"I was witnessing it and for me, (rugby) does institutionalise you a lot more and it just makes it in that environment (being gay) not an option," he says.
It was only after he retired from the game and moved to London for work that he came out. At that point he believed his rugby days were over, until he moved to Sydney and found the Convicts. Founded by Order of Australia Medallist, Andrew 'Fuzz' Purchase, the Convicts are Australia's first gay and inclusive rugby team and one of three competing around the country (the Melbourne Chargers and Brisbane Hustlers are the others). Fuzz was a teammate and good friend of Mark Bingham during their days living and playing in San Francisco for the San Francisco Fog, another gay and inclusive rugby club. Since their inception, the Convicts have spearheaded numerous anti-homophobia campaigns, receiving endorsements from the likes of former-Wallabies captain, David Pocock, and current Wallabies coach, Michael Cheika, who turned out at a Convicts training session to address the players. While it is important that the club "retains a gay identity," anyone can play for the Convicts. There are several straight players in their current squad while heterosexual former-Super Rugby star, Lachlan Mitchell, is a member of the Melbourne Chargers squad. Several players and administrators from the club are quick to stress that sexuality is largely, if not completely, irrelevant. The main point is that no one should have to hide who they are just to play rugby.
"The teams we play also realise we just want to play good rugby at a good standard and the fact that we do play a good standard makes us a lot more credible as a team," says Rob.
Back at training, all the usual footballing stereotypes are at play. Englishmen are "cheats," Islanders would rather yarn than do fitness, and the trainer is smiling sadistically while he runs the team into the ground. When I join in for a game of touch, I'm faced with an agile six foot four, 115 kilogram Polynesian man-mountain steaming at me and I'm reminded exactly why I quit this game in my twenties.
For many, the club's culture of camaraderie and inclusiveness is just as important as getting a game. "I call rugby my 'winter boyfriend," says Marti, the 37-year-old loosehead prop for the Convicts Second XV. "You hang out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and if you don't hang out with them you feel like you miss out on a lot," he says.
Marti takes Don's words about pride in the jersey to heart. The pats on the back he's received while walking the streets of Sydney in his Convicts gear are among the most cherished moments of his life.
"When you're out wearing your Convicts jersey people will recognise you. I feel like an icon to a certain degree but I feel the responsibility to maintain that," he says.
"We are a rugby club and we represent Sydney in the game…their is a responsibility with the players to maintain that brand," he says.
After training we head to a nearby pub for potato wedges and beers. An Irish woman at a nearby table, not realising she's surrounded by a gay football team, tells a lame gay joke, asking her friend what you call a gay dinosaur (answer: a mega-sore-arse). She's seated closest to the table of Polynesians but no one acknowledges it.