Richard Gilbert: “Rugby helps with my mental health, it’s a real solace, so for me lockdown was real.”

It is the nature of inclusive clubs that had Richard Gilbert ahead of many other newcomers when he first joined the Glasgow Raptors by virtue of purely being a fan of rugby.

Of course, he never felt like that was the case. By his own admission, he did not know what he was doing the first time he went along to a bootcamp session, but just by knowing the rules he had a headstart on anyone who were taking their first steps in sport.

To say that Gilbert was never sporty would be a lie – he followed Scotland’s national rugby team and would begin to follow the Glasgow Warriors, in his younger days he tried his hand at football, badminton, swimming and basketball, and even latterly he would go running and hillwalking to stay fit.

Really, he picked rugby up as a regular hobby thanks to one of his female friends who had joined a women’s rugby club and encouraged him to go along when the Raptors’ bootcamp came on their radar.

Rugby quickly became more important to him than that though, and Gilbert soon found himself as one of the more experienced members of the team and being asked to help out in other ways.

“I’m one of those people who wonders where I could be now if I had played rugby from 14 or 15 – probably still the same, at amateur level,” Gilbert reasoned.

“It’s funny, now that it has been four years I’m classed as one of the experienced ones at the club. The team has changed so much in the four years I’ve been there. We’ve always had an issue with player retention, and part of it is natural in IGR – it’s not just a Glasgow Raptors specific thing, it happens to everyone.

“The group of boys changed, so I became one of the more experienced people. At training, people were coming and asking me how I did this or that, and I would just be like ‘umm, the coach is over there’. It was only because I didn’t want to say something wrong, and they end up getting a bad habit that I have.

Gilbert has developed into a senior member of the Glasgow Raptors squad.

“I was never a player/coach before, but it was quite nice when because of the restrictions we had to split into two groups and the coach asked me to help taking the smaller group.

“That’s weird, because as much as I know what I’m doing, it’s different to coach someone and tell them they could do this better, or work on that, or that they’re doing this really well. It’s a different mindset, because you know what you’re good at, but it’s got to be a fine line when you’re talking to someone else.

“It was really nice that he approached me to do it though, and it’s good fun. There’s two of us that were training our sessions, and I would say we did good cop bad cop. I was the good cop, telling everyone they were doing amazing. We were even making a joke when we all came back together as one group that they had it easy with me.

“There are a handful of us that have been there for four years, and I feel like it’s more natural now, I really enjoy it. I enjoy helping other people and seeing them progress and develop. Now that I just notice when someone needs help. If we’re running a drill and I notice someone struggling, I’ll take them to the side and try and help them out.

“It’s all good fun, and it’s something that I would like to develop as I go on now. There are obviously courses out there, but I think just now I’ll take a step back and let the coach do it, and just be a supportive, experienced member that people can come to and ask for help.”

The high turnover of players means it is difficult for the Raptors to become the competitive force they would like to be.

One of the traits of inclusive clubs is that they cater to all ability and experience levels, but that can make competing in leagues quite difficult, and it often means that players who have learned their trade with clubs like the Raptors tend to quickly outgrow them, and look to play at a higher level somewhere else.

Perhaps that is the reason that inclusive sport can sometimes be looked down at as “less than” by those not involved, but Gilbert says when it comes to surprising people, he has seen it more often across national borders.

“You go to something like Hadrian’s Cup last year, and we were in the development tournament alongside Aberdeen Taexali, and it was the two of us that got to the final and Taexali who won,” he recalled.

“The Thebans are at quite a high level, they were in the main cup, but I think  us and Taexali were written off quite quickly as two new Scottish teams.

“We weren’t new, but it was a new crop of boys because we’d moved down to the Development Plate rather than the Hadrian’s Cup. The fact that two Scottish teams got to the final – we played Hull, the London Stags, Chester Centurions, and maybe the Berkshire Unicorns, and I don’t think they were expecting the two Scottish teams to do as well as we did.

“That’s what I like about it, I like going in as the underdog. It suits me, because there’s no expectation on you, and then when you do win it makes them stand up and take notice that we are a serious team, we can play.

Gilbert hopes a match against Aberdeen Taexali will become an annual part of each club’s calendar.

“We played Taexali in an 80 minute match first, before Hadrian’s, and we beat them. They came down to us, so they got their own back at Hadrians. I think it was one of their first full 80 minute matches, and as much as we beat them, that didn’t reflect how competitive it was.

“Yes we got more tries and we won by something like 20 points, but it was very even keel. They were so good, especially for their first match together properly, they were on such a high level of rugby which was good.

“We’ve got good chat with the Aberdeen team, we get on with a lot of the boys, so we always tell them that they trained 10s for about two months while we were still training 15s, but when it came to the day of the match, it doesn’t matter, they were the better team.

“This was the good thing as well, we were in league tables before we got to the final, and we were supporting each other which made it all the better when we were in the final together.

“At the start of that final, we were beating them, then we all started to flag. It was just fitness, and they absolutely smashed us out of the park and they deserved it. I was so proud of them.

“We usually have a yearly match with the Thebans, so I would like to keep this thing with Aberdeen going. If we play each other more than once a year, great, but if we have a yearly game that’s for a cup or something, that would be good.

“I just like how inclusive rugby in Scotland is growing. We now have the Thebans, the Dunfermline Knights, Aberdeen, ourselves and the Inverness Picts, which is good to see. Four years ago as far as I was aware, I only knew about the Alphas and then I found out about the Thebans, and we were the only two IGR teams in Scotland. In four years we’ve got three extra teams, so hopefully that will keep growing.”

Gilbert played the second day of last year’s Hadrians Cup with a broken hand, only realising once he got back to Glasgow.

He was set to miss three months of the season, but in reality he barely missed anything as that was when the pandemic forced countries around the world into lockdown.

Like every other club, the Raptors basically stopped functioning overnight. Training was not allowed, matches were cancelled, and there was no set timescale for when they might be back.

Training, in normal times, is an important part of Gilbert’s week.

As a result, Gilbert was left unsure of himself before the first training sessions returned last summer. Ironically, numbers have boomed at the club since the pandemic started, which meant that things were, in some ways, back to square one for Gilbert personally and the club.

“Rugby helps with my mental health, it’s a real solace, so for me lockdown was really difficult,” Gilbert admitted.

“Obviously with Covid, all of us didn’t realise how serious it was going to get. We all thought it would be two weeks and then we’d be back at work, or it would be a month and everything would be fine. Training was my fitness and how I saw friends, had a laugh with teammates, and there was none of that.

“At first it wasn’t straight onto Zoom, so it was difficult to keep contact with people. I actually didn’t remember the last time I had spoken to some people, and I used to see them twice a week, or go on nights out with them at the weekend.

“It wasn’t just stripping back the rugby, it was the social aspect too. That changed my mindset in that I started going out running when the lockdowns first happened, and that was just because I needed to do something.

“It helped when we were allowed to train again for a bit over the summer, but I was anxious to go back for some reason – I think because we had had three or four months off. I knew that when I was going back, there were newer people who I hadn’t met. I’ve had this conversation with a few people, over Covid I felt a little bit lost within the team.

“I always loved being part of the team, but I didn’t know where the people I was close with were. Some of them seemed to fade away, and as much as I adore it when we get new people, you have to start up a new friendship and get to know them.

“They actually started back up a couple of weeks before I went back. The coach reached out to me to ask where I’d been, and I was like ‘I’m coming, I just need to get my head around what I’m coming back to’, but it was fine. It was funny, because once of the first sessions I went back to, Adam – one of the club’s founders – was there. I felt so anxious walking up to training, but I saw his face and it put me at ease straight away.

“We were training in separate groups at that point, we were split into experienced people and beginners, who were doing intro stuff. We were still under restrictions, so you weren’t allowed to hug and you had to stay a distance away from each other. Me being me, I went over to the group just to introduce myself, and the coach had to shout at me to come back.

“Having no matches really hurt. I was desperate to get one in somehow, but we had to follow the SRU guidelines and it just wasn’t possible, and rightly so. We’re now over a year since we played a match. I’m looking forward to our first match, but we need to get the team ready again. Some of the boys have never done contact training before, so we can’t safely put them on a pitch before they’ve had that training, otherwise they’ll get hurt.

“As much as there are matches on the horizon, we’re still not there yet, because we need to make sure we’ve got a fully trained team who are confident that they know what they’re doing.”

The Raptors rallied quickly when lockdown returned, holding fitness sessions online as well as organised socials, and a Wednesday drop-in session that proved particularly popular where anyone could come if they wanted to and were free and talk about anything.

The Raptors have had to move online to maintain the social side of the club throughout the pandemic.

Of course, Zoom quizzes became the fashion for a while, so Gilbert was desperate to do something different for the “official” socials.

First there was a bingo night, then a Eurovision party earlier this year, which both had one common theme – Gilbert hosted them both in drag.

“We were meant to do a fundraiser last year that was meant to be a drag show,” he explained.

“It wasn’t me just thinking I want to be in drag for this, I was one of the boys who was going to be one of the queens last year. I thought, during Covid, why not? My drag name is Dickie Heed. It was just one of those ones where I thought why not do something a bit different. I was hosting regardless, so why not make it more fun?

“It was one of those that was nerve-wracking, but it was only because I had to host a full night. It was funny, because obviously I had planned it all out – instead of doing your standard bingo calls, certain numbers were songs, or funny phrases, or gay culture references, and then I had the classic tombola.

“It made the night funnier, because the balls took a while to come out, and then every time I had to pick a song I had so many tabs open it took ages to find the right one for the number, but I think that added to it. I know the majority of boys really well, so I was able to do what drag queens do and banter back and forth. I loved it, it was so much fun.

“The second one was a Eurovision one where everybody dressed up as countries, which again was my suggestion because I love Eurovision. That one was funny because I wore a red wig and I was wearing a Union Jack, so everybody was calling me ginger spice. Come on, be more creative than that!

“The second one was more pressure, the reason being some of the boys had already had their first experience of Dickie Heed, so they were clapping back more quickly and I was struggling to clap back to them.

“They had me on the back foot, whereas I felt more in control for the first one because that was their first experience of that character. The second one was harder, I still enjoyed it and it was still fun, but I think it was just because the boys were familiar with her eand they were being just as cheeky back.

“When we’re allowed to do proper socials again, I want us to do a monthly pub quiz, and I’ve already said I want to host as Dickie Heed. It’s just a lot of fun to do, and I’ve had good reviews so the boys loved it as well.”

Gilbert loved it so much, that he now jokes that rugby may fall by the wayside in favour of drag.

“I’ve always loved RuPauls’ Drag Race, and pre-covid when we were allowed to go out I would go and see local drag queens, so I’ve always enjoyed drag for what it is,” he added.

“I don’t think I had ever thought about doing it ever to be honest, it was just when we decided to arrange that fundraiser. We needed about seven or eight boys to get up in drag and do some performances in front of an audience, and raise as much funds for the club as possible.

“We were partnering with LGBT+ Youth Scotland, so it was to raise money for them as well, and I said I’d do it. I wasn’t saying I would be successful, and I can’t do choreography, but I would do it for the fun of it.

“It’s mad to explain, but once you get that make-up and wig on and you’re in full drag, something comes over you that’s hard to explain. It’s like an enhancement on your personality – you’re still the same person but you ramp it right up.

“The character I play is a bit more of a Bianca Del Rio-type, she’s harsher. If I continue doing drag, I’m not going to be a dancer, put it that way. it’s more of the quick comedy stuff that I like to do. I can’t wait until we actually get to have this proper night with all the other boys doing it as well, because it’s just so much fun.

“I always make a joke now that I’ll end up on RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

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