Page last updated at 12:19 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 13:19 UK

Gay rugby team plays with pride

By Ian Dougan

Ulster Titans
The Ulster Titans were formed in July 2007

When I set about making a documentary on Northern Ireland's first recognised gay friendly rugby team, I wasn't sure what the outcome would be.

I first approached the team in the summer of 2007.

At that stage, a very small group of friends, probably two or three guys, had decided to put the word around that they would meet up the following Tuesday for a kick-around behind Botanic Park.

About eight people turned up and that humble beginning was the start of what was going to be a really exciting and life-changing journey for the team.

At a very early stage the team decided that they were going to play at the Bingham Cup - the Gay Rugby World Cup - the following year.

Zeros to heroes

Dublin had beaten off Paris and Sydney to host the event.

The team had 12 months to get themselves from zeros to heroes and to say that this was a big ask is putting things lightly.

I asked to meet with the players to discuss following them to the World Cup after they had been together for about a month.

I turned up to be met by about 20 questioning faces.

I expected that there would be the odd objection; perhaps a few of them would refuse to take part.

But, in fairness to them, they had every right to demand answers to all their questions - some of them were not out to family, friends and work colleagues and some of them simply didn't want television cameras anywhere near them!

It was agreed that I would basically shoot whatever I wanted, with the understanding that it would be a continued series of negotiations along the way.

This gave me numerous sleepless nights, but as this was to be the only way to make it work, I agreed.

They named themselves the Ulster Titans.

This was following the tradition of the many high-octane names that other teams around the world had chosen for themselves.

They wanted to be as good as the Sydney Convicts, Minneapolis Mayhem and the French Barbarians.

The Ulster Titans launched themselves at Gay Pride that August and recruited quite a few new players - enough to form a team.

With no facilities, they trained throughout the long winter nights in almost pitch darkness

It never failed to impress me what these guys were capable of.

With no facilities, they trained throughout the long winter nights in almost pitch darkness until they could afford Halogen lights so that they could at least see the ball.

The team secured the services of a coach, Noel Henry, who totally turned the Titans around.

In the early days, no team in Northern Ireland would give the Titans a match, so the guys travelled to Dublin to play the Emerald Warriors, a southern version of themselves and then travelled to Newcastle to take part in a tournament there.

Then, somewhat unexpectedly, the City of Derry team accepted the Ulster Titan's invitation for a match.

It might have turned out to be a baptism of fire as the City of Derry players are not known for their softly-softly approach on the pitch, but for the rookie Titans it was a real turning point.

Bingham Cup

Over the following months I witnessed the team throw themselves into whatever challenge came their way.

They even negotiated themselves through the stormy public glare following comments made by Sport Minister Edwin Poots, who went on record saying that he believed that the forming of a gay rugby team was tantamount to apartheid.

For me the highlight of The Bingham Cup was not the end result (I won't reveal the outcome), it was actually understanding the reason why the event took place.

The cup was in honour of Mark Bingham, a young gay American rugby enthusiast, who was among the group of passengers who stormed the cockpit and took on the terrorists who had hijacked United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.

I arranged for the players to meet Mark's mother, Alice, who had travelled to Dublin to present the cup and trophies to the winning teams.

It was one of the most incredibly moving experiences of my life.

Alice told us of how Mark had called her from the plane to say that they had been hijacked and to say that he loved her.

The Ulster Titans went on to play a blinder at The Bingham Cup. Each and every player took something special away from that weekend in Dublin.

They were all to say that it was one of the most important times of their lives.

It might have been a difficult journey, and at times it was one which I honestly didn't think would make it to the end, but I have to say that my year with the Ulster Titans, was one of the most rewarding journeys of my professional career.

It was also something that actually touched me at times in a way that I can honestly say will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A Queer Try is on BBC One Northern Ireland on Friday, 5 September at 2130 BST.





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