In freezing temperatures on a snow-covered public football pitch adapted for rugby the Bruisers lost 45-22 to Dublin’s Emerald Warriors on the site of the historic Tempelhof airport.
A flurry of tries by the Warriors, Ireland’s first gay rugby team which was founded 10 years ago, in the final 15 minutes may have flattered the guests, but the frozen conditions favoured the hosts.
“The Warriors had never played on snow, while our four previous training sessions had been in blizzards, so we’re well used to it,” English-born forward Adam Wide, who helped found the Bruisers in April 2012, told AFP.
The Bruisers had also carefully planned their pre-match tactics. “We were very good hosts and took them around Berlin the night before with the aim of getting them very drunk, one of the Warriors stayed out all night, but still managed to play,” added Wide with a smile.
“The Warriors are very experienced and the difference told late in the game, but that’s what happens when a team which has been playing for 10 years takes on one which has been training together for six months.”
Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in football-mad Germany, with around 13,000 active players, including 2,000 women, last year, but the sport is relatively unknown in Germany’s capital outside the ex-pat community.
The world’s first gay rugby team, London’s Kings Cross Steelers, was founded in 1995 and there are gay rugby teams scattered across North America, Australia and Europe.
The Bruisers have already attracted plenty of support from Berlin’s gay community with 500 members and 35 active players training three times a week. The Bruisers can also claim a world record, having completed 237 passes in three minutes, and the first run of their nude calendar sold out – all in their first year as a registered club.
“It all came about down the pub when a few of us asked the question ‘why isn’t there a gay rugby team here?’ and decided to do something about it,” said Wide.
With their first match out of the way, the Bruisers next goal is to find a permanent ground to train at to prepare for the Union Cup, the biennial tournament for gay European teams, hosted this May in Bristol, England.
A gay team with a straight coach
Playing against straight teams in a league is the club’s ultimate aim. While the vast majority of the Bruisers team is gay, their American coach Michael Felts, who played college rugby in North Carolina, is straight.
“I’ve had a few surprised looks when I tell people I coach a gay team, but all the comments I have heard have been positive,” said the 24-year-old, who normally plays on the wing, but played at outside half against the Warriors.
“Occasionally, you hear the odd colourful conversation in training and generally the guys are slightly less aggressive than straight players. “I was pleasantly surprised by how much a few of them performed in the game, they threw themselves into the rucks and mauls. It was awesome.”
With 15 nationalities represented amongst the Bruisers and a wide range of ages, English is the main language during training.
Having sought out a team to coach after arriving in Berlin last year, Felts took his first Bruisers training session last October on a spare patch of ground in Tiergarten, the city centre park near Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate.
“The first few training sessions, I just watched to see where we could start from and it was pretty much the bottom,” said Felts, who is also head coach of another Berlin rugby team.
“Some had never played the game before, but the benefit of that is they have no bad habits.”
Despite Berlin’s sub-zeros temperatures and regular bouts of heavy snow during winter, the Bruisers train in all weathers. “We’ve trained when it’s been minus eight or nine, I told the guys I’d be there and a bunch of them showed up even when it was really cold,” said Felts.
“We couldn’t put in any contact, a few of them were sliding around on the ice, but having a great time.”
Poignantly, the Bruisers train in Tiergarten just a few metres from the memorial to homosexuals persecuted and murdered under Nazi rule from 1933-45.
“I feel that’s true Berlin fashion, the Germans don’t shy away from their World War II past, they don’t hide anything and they are trying to make amends. It’s now about moving forwards,” said Felts.