Last night I attended the launch party for the Union Cup, which was held at Bristol’s science museum, @Bristol, an extraordinary venue which I must visit again and report on in detail. The party was a fascinating experience. There were around 500 people present, of whom only 4 were women. Almost all of the men were gay, and very few looked anything like the mincing stereotype that the national media still trots out whenever gay issues get mentioned. Kudos is due to Peter Williams, the Chair of Gloucestershire Rugby Football Union, who made the opening speech, stressing rugby’s support of the tournament and its commitment to inclusivity.
The tournament got underway today with a ceremonial first kick by Ian Boulton, the Chair of South Gloucestershire Council, and the equivalent of the mayor for the region in which the Stoke Gifford sports campus is located. WISE Campus is home to Bristol Academy and boasts the only purpose-built ladies’ soccer stadium in the country. There’s even a little statue of a vixen with a football at the entrance to the ground. It also has three rugby pitches, and we used them all.
As might be expected, the standard of rugby varied enormously. Some teams were very professional, while others had never played a competitive match before. All of the teams, however, were out to do their best, and there was no shortage of aggression. In the very first game a Newcastle Ravens player left the field with a dislocated shoulder (rough lot, those Bisons). I saw several other shoulder injuries during the day; a Bisons player limped off with an ankle injury, and I heard rumor of a broken arm. Pride of place in the tough guy stakes goes to Matt, the fly half for Manchester Village Spartans, who took a boot to the face in his first game. After a quick trip to hospital for some stitches just above his eyebrows, he was back in action for game two.
There was plenty of needle too. In the first five minutes of their game against Cardiff Lions, the London Steelers were twice penalized for foul play, including a vicious clothesline tackle that left the Welsh player flat out on the field for a couple of minutes. Later on the referee stopped the game for five minutes while he gave the teams a good talking to and got them to calm down.
The conditions made play difficult at times. The wind was very strong and several times I saw players kick the ball only to see it blown back over their heads. Although there were some competent kickers, not once did I see a penalty attempt at goal. Everyone tried to keep the ball in hand, but the cold temperatures and occasional fierce rain squalls made that difficult too. We are all hoping for better weather tomorrow.
There was, of course, plenty of excellent rugby, and a nail-biting finish to the day. The teams in the 15-a-side tournament had been divided into four groups. Each team played three matches, mostly in-group, with points being scored according to a system of 4 for a win, 2 for a draw, plus bonus points for 4 tries and losing by 7 or less. At the end of the day all of the teams were combined into a single table. London, Dublin and Manchester qualified for the final being unbeaten in their groups, but there was a three-way tie for fourth place and a tense wait while Dave Aird, the tournament director, counted up points scored for and against in matches. In the end Newcastle Ravens just pipped Cardiff Lions, with Northampton Outlaws, in their first ever competition, finishing a very creditable sixth.
In the 10-a-side content Dublin and Montpelier were clearly the form teams. The French team is unbeaten, and will be expecting to vanquish the Irish again tomorrow. My new best friends, the Lisbon Dark Horses, will be delighted with a win over Birmingham Bulls.
As with rugby sevens, the tournament will feature additional playoff games for lesser trophies. Cardiff and Northampton will be joined in the Plate contest by the London 2nd XV and the Amsterdam Lowlanders. The Bowl will be fought over by Stockholm Berserkers, Brussels Straffe Ketten, Edinburgh Thebans and Lyons Rebelyons. The Spoon match will be between Berlin Bruisers and Bristol Bisons.
Although the Bisons lost all three matches, they can count themselves somewhat unlucky. They were not expected to beat Newcastle, but the Northampton Outlaws were very much the surprise team of the tournament. They had never played a competitive game before, and came within a whisker of making the finals. Bristol’s third game was against an experienced Amsterdam side that had only narrowly lost to Brussels.
Much as it pains me to admit it, I am fairly sure that London will come away with the cup again tomorrow. However, Dublin and Manchester are both fine sides. The Irish have come to Bristol with the firm intention of winning both tournaments, and have a group play record as good as London’s, but Manchester had to play a game against Newcastle. The Spartans have a proud tradition in gay rugby, having hosted the world’s first ever such match in 1995. They’ll be determined to make the final again.
Whatever happens, we can be guaranteed a lot of exciting rugby. Bristol’s Mayor, George Ferguson, will be joining us at the ground for the finals. I’ll be doing live commentary, alongside my new friend, Paul Davis, who runs BCFM’s sports show. We’ll also be doing the sports show live from the ground, covering all the day’s action (including the test cricket and the Monaco Grand Prix), and previewing Sunday’s Woman’s FA Cup Final. You can follow all of the action over the Internet via the BCFM website.