Some of the Bristol Bisons players heading to the Bingham Cup in Rome. | Image supplied by Bristol Bisons RFC

Warriors and Knights. Spartans and Barbarians. Berserkers and Renegades.

These names of teams competing in the Bingham Cup in Rome this weekend suggest a mighty battle royale is on the cards.

But there are Dolphins, Otters and Flamingos taking part too — even a team of Flying Monks.

All are assured of a warm welcome at the biennial IGR Bingham Cup rugby union tournament, one of the world’s biggest LGBTQ-inclusive sports events.

The 11th edition kicks off in Rome on Thursday, with more than 3,500 participants. Organizers have told Outsports that the final tally of entered teams is 97. It’s officially the biggest Bingham ever.

The Kings Cross Steelers, the world’s first gay-inclusive rugby union club founded nearly 30 years ago, are the reigning champions following their victory over Gotham Knights in the final in Ottawa two years ago.

The Steelers have two teams in the top-tier men’s competition, and they even got a send-off message from pro player Louis Lynagh, a star on the wing for Premiership giants Harlequins and the Italian national team.

The Londoners will face strong competition, however, with the Knights, five-time winners the Sydney Convicts, and another Australian side, the Brisbane Hustlers, also seeded.

There are three tiers below that level, plus a four-team women’s tournament, and there will be an all-trans rugby match for only the second time ever.

Bisons players in the pink

Jamie White is the chair of the Bristol Bisons from the UK and for many of their players — including himself — it’s their first Bingham Cup.

“It’s super exciting,” he tells Outsports. “This tournament is so special — it really does bring the whole world of IG Rugby together.

“We’ve got two teams going out, and about 30 supporters too. For our first team, playing in the second-tier competition, we want to go there, play our hearts out, and prove what we’ve learned.

“We’ve gone from being pretty much bottom of the league in the UK about three years ago, to winning our league at the end of last season. So we’re going for victory again!

“For our seconds, a lot of the players have only recently joined so for them it’s more about enjoying the rugby and proving something to themselves. Ultimately, we’re all there to have fun.”

A cheeky streak runs right through the Bisons herd, as shown by some extra-special custom Bingham merch they’ve produced — bright pink swim briefs branded with the club badge.

“We needed to stand out a bit!” laughs White. “All the players wanted one and as you can see, we got some very nice photos from the shoot.”

But there’s also a serious side to the Bingham Cup.

Firstly, there’s its history — the tournament is named after Mark Bingham, a former San Francisco Fog player who was a passenger on the ill-fated Flight 93 that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

He is widely acknowledged to have been among a group of heroes who prevented the hijackers from inflicting an even greater tragedy that day.

Bingham’s life story, told in a brilliant World Rugby documentary you can watch for free on YouTube, is a stirring tale. He is rightly revered within the global IGR family as shown by a poignant moment of remembrance at Wednesday’s opening ceremony.

At a time when LGBTQ rights are sliding back in many parts of the world — not least in Italy, which does not have equal marriage and where the right-wing government is trying to erode the rights of same-sex parents — Bingham’s memory inspires rugby players and fans today to show courage on and off the field.

“IGR stands for International Gay Rugby and that was very much what it used to be, when I started playing,” says White.

“But now it’s become so much more than that. It’s fully about inclusion.”

An example of this was the news Tuesday that Maddison Dennison has been elected as the new chair of IGR. A trans woman, she is a member of Toronto’s Rainbow Griffins club and has campaigned against policies that restrict her community from participating in women’s rugby.

White continues: “Whatever your background, ethnicity, gender, age, all those things, this is a safe space to do something you might enjoy, that you might never have done before — and to make new friends and family too.

“Rugby is an incredibly inclusive sport and although we still don’t have many players out in the men’s pro game, I think that’s changing.

“The ban on trans women playing women’s rugby is something we’re all actively standing up against because we don’t believe it should be in place. 

“There is a trans players exhibition match on Sunday and one of our Bisons players is going to be involved in that. It’s a hugely proud moment for us as a club and for IGR in general.”

That game will be live streamed for free via The Rugby Network, along with the finals of the Bingham Cup top-tier competition and the women’s tournament.

The stream is due to begin at 2 p.m. Rome time, which is 8 a.m. EDT. One of the best commentators around, Nick Heath, will be behind the mic.

Before that, there will be numerous social events across the Italian capital, including drag shows, “Bear Markett”, and other party and club nights.

For White and the Bisons, it’s la dolce vita. “We can’t wait and we’re desperate to bring home some silverware as well,” he says.

With around 70 traveling from Bristol to Rome, he is particularly grateful to main sponsors GWR and The Gifted Stationery Company. “Those two have really helped us to get there because it is an expensive trip.”

All aboard for the Bristol Bisons’ big trip to the Bingham Cup in Rome

Local LGBTQ venues have helped the Bisons with fundraising too, and it’s been a similar situation for the vast majority of clubs taking part.

To conclude, here are just a few more of those tremendous team names — the Wisconsin Beer Bulls, the Portland Lumberjacks, the Cork Hellhounds, and the Appalachian Thunderkats. 

The Bingham Cup truly brings tribes together in a joyous festival of community rugby. Let the fur fly, and the good times ruck and roll.