Player of the Year
How the Sydney Convicts helped James Saunders, recently named the gay rugby club’s ‘Player of the Year’, reach the top of his game. As planning begins for the next Bingham Cup to be held in Sydney, the backline star speaks to Serkan Ozturk about rugby, sportsmanship and the Convicts.
Barely out of his teens, with two sports bags and $300 in his pocket, and having only been ‘out’ as a gay man for a few months, James Saunders made the difficult decision to leave behind his mum and eight brothers and sisters in Brisbane and move to Sydney to seek a life of greater opportunity and the chance to chase a rugby dream.
It was 2005 and Saunders, then 20, had just taken part in a Purchas Cup match pitting some of Australia’s best gay rugby clubs against each other. Having played rugby since the age of 13 and then all throughout his time at a Queensland boarding school, Saunders had found himself playing in the backline for the Brisbane Hustlers club against the might of the Sydney Convicts.
He had joined the Hustlers after a brief stint spent living in regional Victoria at a time when he was still accepting his sexuality.
“I was about 19 or 20,” Saunders tells SX. “Coming out was a culmination of things. I just didn’t want to live secretly. Joining the rugby team really opened up my eyes to another side of the gay community.
“Before that I wasn’t really comfortable. I like sports, I like to go camping, I like to spend time out in the bush – meeting guys that had those similar interests made me feel more normal and not so different, so I got the balls to tell my family.”
Saunders’ declaration did lead to some initial worry within his large Indigenous family – his older brother sadly spiralled into alcohol and drug abuse after he had earlier come out as gay.
“They were a bit worried when I did come out that I was going to get swallowed up by the gay community which we’ve seen with other people in the family but they love it,” he says.
“And they love rugby so they fully support me.”
But the extent of that love was tested soon again when Saunders dropped another bombshell – this time to tell them he was packing his bags to join the Sydney Convicts in the harbour city so that he could take part in the third Bingham Cup that was held in New York in 2006.
“The Convicts were motivated enough to go to New York in 2006 for the Bingham Cup,” he explains.
“I also wanted a change. I wasn’t liking life in Queensland, it wasn’t for me. I wanted more opportunities.
“Coming to Sydney was a big thing. My family were worried what a big city would do to me. But when I got here I was really supported.”
Saunders and his newfound teammates would end up claiming the Bingham Cup in New York – regarded as the ‘World Cup’ of gay rugby – the first of three successes in the biennial international tournament. The cup was first run in 2002 and named after gay US rugby player Mark Bingham who lost his life in the September 11 attacks attempting to overpower hijackers of United Airlines 93.
Now 27 and considered a senior player, Saunders has taken part in all three Bingham Cup wins, including this year’s victory in Manchester, England where the rangy fly-half was voted ‘Player of the Tournament’. To cap off a remarkable year for Saunders and the club – which saw the Convicts also triumph in their local suburban competition the Nicholson Cup as well as the Purchas Cup – the backline star was named the club’s ‘Best and Fairest’, ‘Best Back’, ‘Highest Point Scorer’ as well as ‘Player of the Year’.
“Two years ago in Minneapolis we went over [for the Bingham Cup] and lost the Grand Final. I got injured within the first five minutes of that final and had to stand from the sidelines and watch us lose,” Saunders recalls.
“Going to Manchester there was an expectation of how we were going to bounce back from that. We were really prepared. We were well drilled, we were fit, we were very switched on and it reflected in the rugby. Out of the six games we played only one team scored a try against us.”
Upon returning to Sydney, the Convicts were greeted by rugby greats Mark Ella, Nick Farr-Jones and Phil Waugh while the likes of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull and Wallabies legend John Eales all threw their support behind the club’s bid to host the next Bingham Cup in 2014. In October, the Convicts’ bid was announced as successful with the next two years to now be spent preparing to welcome over 1,000 gay rugby footballers as well support staff and fans from all around the world.
“Every Bingham Cup you get better players, the teams are more organised, the jerseys are better, you start seeing more sponsors,” Saunders says. “People are actually starting to really recognise that it is a legitimate rugby tournament. It’s a good spectacle. It’s entertaining, it’s passionate, it’s got everything you want from something you want to follow or support.
“It’s an exciting time. One thousand or so gay rugby players from around the world in the one city does create a natural buzz.”
With the Convicts calling on members of the LGBTI and rugby communities who may have skills or experience in event management, marketing, accounting, media or just some spare time to volunteer to get involved with the Bingham Cup, it is expected it will be the largest and best run version of the tournament so far.
It’s a feeling shared by other high-profile LGBTI organisations such as ACON, Sydney Mardi Gras, the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) as well as newly elected Sydney MP Alex Greenwich, who all point to the Convicts’ abilities as a club to break down stereotypes and promote greater diversity and equality.
GLRL spokesperson Jed Horner tells SX the Convicts’ “inclusive approach” to sport is a big reason for the club’s many successes in only nine years of existence.
“Their successful bid to host the Bingham Cup in Sydney in 2014 will return significant benefits to the community and raise the profile of local LGBTI sportspeople,” he says.
“It’s important that all members of the community, businesses and Sydneysiders more broadly swing in to support them in the run-up to the Cup in 2014.”
Mardi Gras CEO Michael Rolik tells SX that excitement will only build over coming months as the tournament’s kickoff at Woollahra edges ever so closer.
“As fellow promoters of diversity and equality, we greatly value the contributions made by the reigning champions to both the LGBTQI and broader community,” Rolik says.
“The Sydney Convicts play an important role in eliminating homophobia in the sporting and wider community and we are excited to continue our support and celebration of their achievements.”
The Convicts have also been on the forefront of giving back to the community which supports them, ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill tells SX.
“The Convicts have been a community partner of ACON’s for many years and it’s an association in which we take great pride,” he says.
“Club members assist with our health promotion and fundraising activities and are great ambassadors for ACON and our community.”
Greenwich, too, only has good things to say about the diverse club which also counts Indigenous players, Samoans and Islanders, an Asian contingent, three Canadians and even a few straight boys as Convicts footballers.
“Bringing the Bingham Cup to Sydney will greatly benefit our city and community, and I encourage everyone to join me in supporting the Cup and the Convicts,” Greenwich says.
Having made the big decision to move away from this roots, Saunders tells SX that the Convicts have become a de facto family for him particularly as he grew up not knowing his father who walked on his family when he was only seven years old. Now studying a Communication degree at the University of Technology, Sydney and working inside the university’s Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning where he encourages indigenous high school students to consider tertiary or further education, Saunders says a lot of his confidence these days comes from the belief the Convicts have instilled in him.
“I got poached into a job that ultimately changed my life. I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that job if it hadn’t been for the Convicts,” Saunders reflects.
“I basically didn’t have any male role models in my life growing up so being around a group of older gay men who were my mates – they were like family looking out for me – kind of gave me an ability to think I can do this.
“I don’t need to prove my masculinity to anybody. I don’t need to prove who I am to anybody and I’m not doing this for that. I’m doing it because I love sport, I love rugby and I think I’m good at it so that’s why I’m going to continue doing it.”
[Images] James Saunders (top image); with the Sydney Convicts at the Bingham Cup tournament in Manchester in June earlier this year (centre); and with club management in October. Photos: Jason Nichol; Mark Dickson
Go to www.sydneyconvicts.org