The opening match of the 10th Rugby World Cup pitted the hosts against the bookies’ favourites in front of 80,000 fans.
There was a gay player out on the pitch — for a short time at least, before kick-off in Paris on Friday night.
Cyril Leroy was selected by the French Rugby Federation (FFR) to be the game’s official ball-carrier, in recognition of him being the founder of Les Gaillards — the country’s first gay rugby club — and his long-standing commitment to inclusive sport and fighting homophobia.
“I’m really honored,” Leroy told Outsports ahead of the match. “It’s incredibly humbling.
“The FFR wants to show it’s serious about all forms of diversity, not just LGBTQ. I’ve been chosen for this game and others have been invited to be ball-carriers for later matches.
“It’s a big symbol. We’ll have the opening ceremony, and President Macron and other dignitaries will be in the stadium, so I’m really pleased.”
TV viewers will also see Leroy during commercial breaks throughout the tournament, with sponsor Land Rover Defender featuring him in a ‘Trailblazers’ ad spot.
Before walking out with the oval ball at the Stade de France, he will have been thinking back to two decades ago when he started up Les Gaillards.
“I come from the suburbs of Paris which is not the most gay-friendly place in which to grow up,” said Leroy.
“I wasn’t very comfortable doing sport when I was a teenager. But after I came out, I joined an LGBTQ volleyball club in Paris which was fun and I made a lot of friends.”
However, rugby had always been his favourite sport since watching games on TV with his uncle, a passionate fan.
“I realized I was missing rugby and I really wanted to play but there was no gay team for that,” he explained.
“So I decided to create one from scratch. It was difficult — you didn’t have social media or any of that stuff back then.
“It was more about collecting friends, and friends of friends, going to bars and just talking about what we were doing.
“Even then, people wanted to know if it would be tough and dangerous and whether they would get injured!”
Despite that, Leroy recruited enough players to get the club off the ground, with the carrot of a trip to London for International Gay Rugby’s major event in summer 2004.
It had been given the title of the Bingham Cup, in memory of Mark Bingham, who had played for the San Francisco Fog in a precursor tournament just a few months before losing his life in the terrible events of 9/11.
Bingham was among the Flight 93 passengers who stormed the cockpit and ultimately brought the plane down in Pennsylvania, preventing it from hitting its expected target in Washington D.C.
The Fog had hosted and won the first Bingham Cup on Pride weekend in June 2002 and the media coverage of that tournament helped to inspire several gay rugby fans around the world — including Leroy — to set up their own inclusive clubs.
“We were the first in France and we called ourselves ‘Les Gaillards’,” said Leroy.
“The word is from the South of France and means ‘tough guy’. All the gay rugby clubs seem to have similar, strong-sounding names!
“But we also picked it so we could be inclusive and when needed, add an ‘e’ before the ‘s’, as we were hoping to have women join too. Now we have men’s and women’s teams, and a touch rugby section too.”
In the early years, Les Gaillards focused on getting taken seriously as a rugby club and being ‘bon viveurs’ with the opposition post-match, although sometimes expectations of homophobia did creep into their minds.
“I remember one game we had coming up against a parish team. We really thought some of their players might be right-wing and we thought, ‘they’re going to kill us!’
“But both teams played tough, fair rugby and there were no homophobic words said. And they stayed for beers afterwards and were good fun.”
Within a few years, another LGBTQ-friendly rugby club — Les Coqs Festifs — started up in Paris and more IGR teams have followed in Lyon, Montpellier and Toulouse.
The relationship between these clubs and the FFR has blossomed over time, to the point where Leroy’s outstanding contribution was recognised while the world was watching.
“We can now be even more sure of their commitment to inclusion and rugby for all,” he said.
“I’m proud to be part of that history, not for my ego but for gay rugby which I’ve loved being involved in for so many years.
“I never thought 20 years ago when I started Les Gaillards that I would be at the stadium on a night like this.
“And it’s important that people know we exist, especially young people. When I grew up, I didn’t have any openly gay role models.”
There has never been a publicly out gay or bi player in a men’s Rugby World Cup. Wales legend Gareth Thomas came out in 2009 after representing his country in four World Cups and remains the only known gay man to have played in the tournament.
Despite this, the reputation of men’s rugby with regards to LGBTQ inclusion is strong. The welcoming response to Thomas’s coming out helped to cement that, following on from the goodwill shown to his Welsh compatriot Nigel Owens when the referee went public about his sexuality in 2007.
Owens went on to officiate in four World Cups, including taking charge of the 2015 final.
Leroy isn’t particularly surprised by the lack of representation in elite men’s rugby.
“I can understand that it’s really complicated for someone in their career. We all have our own journey and it’s not always easy to say you’re gay.
“But hopefully when people see me in the adverts or when I carry the ball tonight, they will learn that there’s a club and a sport that will welcome you.”
Nick McCarthy, who came out in June 2022 while at Leinster, was a near miss for this tournament. The former Ireland Under-20 international recently made his Test debut for the USA — he was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan – but the Eagles won’t be at the World Cup after losing narrowly to Chile in a playoff.
“We’d love to have more representatives but it is what it is,” added Leroy.
“We have some big allies, so we can count on them too. They speak in the media, they call out homophobia, they wear rainbow laces. In soccer, there’s less of that I feel.”
On the officiating side, it’s vital to mention Joy Neville who is making history this year as the first woman to be selected on a men’s RWC officiating panel. Neville will be one of seven Television Match Officials (TMOs) in France. Away from her refereeing duties, the Irishwoman and her wife Simona welcomed baby Alfie two years ago.
The LGBTQ visibility at this Rugby World Cup is not limited to Neville’s video vantage point and Leroy’s appearance at the opening game, however.
Following on from the launch earlier this year of ‘Rugby Is My Pride’, an initiative which saw French rugby featuring in the Paris Gay Pride parade, a campaign video will be played on stadium and fan park screens during the tournament.
After a symposium is held on Coming Out Day in October, there will be the staging of the Pride Respect Cup, a mini tournament featuring gay-friendly teams from France, Italy and other countries.
Leroy says all these activations help to demonstrate how LGBTQ people are valued within the rugby family.
“Homophobia is something we have to check on every day. It’s never finalised,” he says.
“But in rugby, I think we’re more open-minded than in a lot of other sports. And for a ball carrier at the World Cup to be gay? Well, that’s important too.”