Last November, as Siya Kolisi hoisted the World Cup into the Yokohama sky, it felt like rugby union had finally shaken itself free. An inspirational black captain, clad in a Springbok jersey, proving to the world his sport did not discriminate. For all those who believe in racial equality and yearn for a more enlightened, harmonious future it was an iconic image.
And now? The sickening death of George Floyd, the subsequent global outrage and the increasingly stark evidence of white privilege has caused everyone to do a mental stocktake. How many of us have railed loudly enough against racism and deep-rooted injustice, as opposed to showing passive support from afar? In rugby union, as with most sports in this country, the word “inclusive” is far easier to write than to make happen.
And how much value is there nowadays in well‑intentioned hand-wringing? Over the weekend it seemed more useful to consult the Wasps forward Simon McIntyre, among the longer-serving English-born black players in the Premiership. McIntyre does not want this to be about him but his personal testimony is important.
Growing up in Manchester, McIntyre was around 13 when he experienced his first overt racism, at a local rugby club. His Broughton Park team contained several black kids and not all their opposition were colour blind. “One day we were winning – which we did a lot – and me and my teammates were called ‘cotton-pickers’. I didn’t really understand the connotations and remember going over to my dad to ask him.”
It was a seminal moment for both. “He didn’t tell me then because he wanted me to carry on playing rugby but I could tell from his face it was something bad.”
Dr Ken McIntyre, an educational psychologist, had already felt the need to sit down his son and educate him about what may lie ahead. Recent events have brought such unsettling memories bubbling to the surface.
“Growing up I remember my dad trying to have the conversation with me. He said people were going to treat me differently and I wouldn’t really understand why at certain times. It’s a hard message to have to give to your children. Over the past week, talking to friends, you realise there are stories you’ve buried in the back of your mind because they’re too raw and hurtful.”
There were other grim episodes during McIntyre’s youth. In his mid-teens he had a coach who, whenever the player was in earshot, would tell a crass racist joke under the pretext of banter. When McIntyre finally asked him why, he was told it was to toughen him up.
The prop has gone on to enjoy a successful professional career but he firmly believes he has done so in spite, not because, of the obstacles placed in front of him. “There definitely is a barrier. When you look around squads there are not many people who look like you. It’s a question you ask yourself internally but you can’t really seem to voice it. It’s not the norm you being there.”
Once those doubts surface, the effect can be corrosive. “A lot of the overt racism I encountered was at lower‑club level but once I started to progress it was more subtle. There’s a feeling that when you walk into a room you’re having to change an opinion that has already been formed. That’s not right. It’s almost like impostor syndrome. You have to work harder in a lot of ways. I think that’s the case for a lot of players. Judgments are made that aren’t based on reality.”
Others within the rugby community feel similarly. The Dragons wing Ashton Hewitt has spoken movingly about being repeatedly stopped and searched by police for no other reason than the colour of his skin. The former Gloucester centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu has recalled being openly told there was no way, even as the club’s player of the year, he could earn more than international players from closer to home.
Even now, in 2020, there are too few homegrown black coaches and specialist backroom staff in top-level English rugby. McIntyre, 29, also still feels it is way easier for youngsters to find black role models in football, boxing and athletics. “I do believe rugby is behind those sports in a lot of ways. I dare rugby to be bolder, to be more in the forefront of society and pushing these social agendas. We talk about rugby as an inclusive sport – and in many ways it is – but it can be pushed further.”
Their first move should be to listen to the views of McIntyre and others such as him. “I think questions need to start being asked. Are there obstacles to black players in this country? Is rugby still predominantly a middle‑class sport? A lot of people are wanting to change society for the better and make it more inclusive but until you start getting to the root of problems and looking internally I don’t think anything’s really going to change.
“It’s something black players talk about but it’s not an open conversation. There’s still a fear or a stigma that by asking these questions you’ll be seen as a troublemaker. It’s something that’s conditioned from an early age. You’re told not to rock the boat. There’s clearly a lot of ignorance out there but, hopefully, there’s now a willingness to listen. I want the experience to change for young players coming through.”
If that comes to pass, McIntyre’s brave and honest testimony will have helped to accelerate it. It is 25 years this month, coincidentally, since president Nelson Mandela, clad in a Springbok No 6 jersey, and Francois Pienaar were united in joy by South Africa’s 1995 World Cup triumph. As with Kolisi, one iconic image should not obscure the evil still lurking in the shadows.