Inside RL: Hirst’s brave move will blaze a trail for others – Smith

Keegan Hirst.
Keegan Hirst.
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SEVEN DAYS ago Keegan Hirst was just another lower division rugby league player.

At the start of this week, for a day or two at least, he became possibly the sport in this country’s most famous individual.

In an interview with a national newspaper last weekend, Hirst came out and revealed he is gay, becoming the first man to do so while playing for a British professional rugby league club.

The widespread reaction among the rugby league public could be summarised as “credit to the lad, but really – so what?”

Which in itself reflects great credit on the sport and the people it attracts.

It is a big deal, because Hirst is the first, but hopefully in the future such announcements, should anybody feel they need to make one, won’t be considered a story.

Hirst has taken a brave step, because rugby league is a macho world.

Of course, there shouldn’t be a need for anybody to speak out about matters which are deeply personal, but statistically he won’t be the only gay player at professional level and perhaps his decision to come out – and the positive reaction it has generated – will give confidence to others who may be in a similar situation.

Inveitably there have been negative comments, but the majority have supported Hirst and his right to live his own life.

That’s not really a surprise, because rugby league has always been inclusive. For example, Wales’ George Bennet became the first black man to play the sport for one of the home nations as long ago as 1935.

Roy Francis, who switched from playing to coaching at Hull in the late 1950s, was Britain’s first black professional team boss, Clive Sullivan was the first black man to captain any England side in 1972 and Ellery Hanley broke new ground by coaching Great Britain 22 years later.

None of those will be defined, in the rugby league world, by the colour of their skin, for the simple reason it never really mattered to anybody in the game.

More can be done, but – maybe as a legacy of more than a century of being patronised and looked down on by the establishment – the code has generally had a live and let live attitude.

The RFL’s work on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights has led the way and last weekend’s development illustrated the value of that.

Hirst’s announcement has certainly shattered some stereotypes, not only about who plays rugby league, but also those who watch it.

Hirst led Batley out, apparently to a good reception, for last Sunday’s derby against Dewsbury Rams just hours after his interview hit the presses.

That game, unfortunately, will be remembered for an horrific injury to Bulldogs full-back Johnny Campbell, who suffered a badly broken leg and dislocated ankle.

Veteran coach John Kear described it as one of the worst injuries he has seen and it will be a long road back for Campbell, who is among the top full-backs outside Super League.

He isn’t alone. Last weekend was marred by a number of worrying injuries to players, beginning when Mitch Achurch was knocked out in Leeds Rhinos’ win over Wigan Warriors.

Richard Owen suffered a similar injury to Campbell’s playing for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats against Bradford Bulls and Sheffield’s Steve Thorpe was another broken leg victim, at Widnes Vikings.

That game featured two such injuries, with Macgraff Leuluai suffering a similar fate.

Once again, the level of support for the injured players was impressive. It was good to see, for example, medics from both clubs treating Owen on the field before he was taken to hospital.

There are risks in most sports, but rugby league is a particularly tough game and it is astonishing how professional players can drag themselves out of bed the morning after a match.

Players make mistakes, have bad days and do daft things at times, but last weekend only highlighted their qualities as athletes and people.