The Bingham Cup is the biggest inclusive rugby tournament in the world. Named after Mark Bingham, an American rugby player who helped found the Gotham Knights but died on one of the planes involved in the 9/11 attacks after fighting on-board with the hijackers, this year is the 20th anniversary of the first edition of the competition.
At the time of Bingham’s death, there were around eight inclusive rugby clubs in the world, but the most recent tournament – usually held every two years – in Amsterdam in 2018 saw 2300 registered participants from 63 countries. That number is likely to grow again this year, with around 150 teams expected to make the trip to Ottawa in Canada.
Included in that number, for the first time, will be a joint-entry from the Glasgow Raptors and Aberdeen Taexali.
It will be an exciting venture for both sets of players, who have competed at UK and Ireland-based tournaments like the Union Cup and Hadrian Cup but haven’t yet competed at Bingham.
However, according to Raptors’ head coach, Tim Abrams, it has long been a target of the club to enter.
“Since I joined the club in 2019 our plan has been to try and compete in as many tournaments as we can,” he explained.
“We sent a team to the Union Cup in June 2019 and we played at Enfys 7s in Cardiff in August of the same year. We have also played at the Hadrian Cup in Newcastle several times, including in 2022 when we reached the final of the Antinous Plate.
“The Bingham Cup was always a competition that we wanted to compete in, just like we want to compete in everything.
“The collaboration with another team arose as an option early on because the Bingham Cup is in Ottawa this year and unfortunately not everybody can afford the time or the monetary expense to make the journey. We weren’t realistically going to be able to send 25 of our own club members so very early on we decided to try and find a partner club.
“We have a really good relationship with Aberdeen Taexali. Their players joined us at the Union Cup in Dublin and Enfys in Cardiff in 2019 and in January 2020 we hosted them for their first ever competitive rugby match, so it made sense to try and link up with them.”
As with many inclusive clubs and tournaments, while there are rewards to be had for good performances on the pitch, one of the main draws for entrants to the Bingham Cup is being able to meet and link up with people from other clubs and countries who have a common thread in their backstories and interests.
Being one of the biggest – if not the biggest – rugby tournaments in the world means there is ample opportunity for that in Ottawa this August.
Although not a member of the LGBTQIA+ community himself, Abrams has still seen the effect of having that community first hand with the Raptors.
“I think it’s really important, especially for clubs who are taking their first steps into the world of community rugby,” Abrams stressed.
“A lot of rugby clubs have been around for decades – here in Scotland, some of them have been around for over a century – so for new clubs I think it’s important that we have bonds with other similar clubs where we can learn from each other and support each other.
“It’s just good to know that there are other clubs in similar situations to us who we can have camaraderie with and help each other.
“It’s great because now our club members don’t just meet people from Glasgow – they also have friends in Edinburgh, in Aberdeen, and Preston and Leeds and Newcastle and Manchester and Liverpool and even further afield.”
For the players, too, there is excitement over what lies ahead in Canada later this year – and the power of coming together as an LGBTQIA+ community in sport will not be lost on them.
“I joined the Raptors to improve my fitness after lockdown, but it has become so much more than that – from a safe space to continue to explore my identity, to a community of likeminded people, to fun weekends away with other IGR teams, and countless socials and events,” Chris Afuakwah said.
“If you’d told me two years ago that I would be flying out to Canada for a rugby tour in 2022 I would have laughed, but now I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to go and have this experience with such a great group of people.
“At a time when everything is so unstable and divided, when every day brings news of more tragedies and more attacks on LGBT+ rights across the world, there is so much power in a tournament like this which brings together people from across the world.
“There is nothing more joyful than when a group of LGBT+ people get together, and we all need more of that queer joy right now.
“I am really excited to head out to Ottawa in August. It feels like a really exciting step for our club, and the perfect time to be doing something like this, and I’m just glad to be part of it all really. I look forward to training with Taexali over the summer to get us in shape, and to just go out there and have the best time.”
Thousands of people will gather at Bingham to play rugby, the vast majority of whom have been brought into the sport that they didn’t previously feel welcomed by as a result of the rapid growth of inclusive rugby clubs globally.
The first major inclusive rugby tournaments took place in the early- 00s, so they are still, comparatively, in their infancy, but to see them go from strength to strength shows the enduring popularity of the sport and demonstrates the tireless work of those who have made it more inclusive over the past 25 years. The Bingham Cup itself, the largest amateur rugby tournament in the world, is the ultimate testament to this.
Of course, with any sport there is a competitive aspect to it. The Bingham Cup breaks into three different tournaments by the time all is said and done to ensure teams – especially those travelling long distances – do not turn up and get knocked out after one match.
While it might not be the ultimate goal, the combined Raptors/Taexali team will want to show what they can do in matches and pick up as many wins as possible. In the grander scheme of things though, it is a chance to test out where those players are in rugby and see how well they have progressed since picking up the sport.
“We would like to win, right?” Abrams laughed.
“Like anyone, once you get involved in sport, whether you like it or not, you want to win. This season we have played a lot of really tough opposition, and we have lost more than we have won, but what we have seen is significant progress in more or less every single match.
“Even though we’ve lost quite a number of games, if you talk to the players as they’re coming off the pitch, or you ask them about it the next day or look at their posts on social media, the sense of belief in the progress we are making and what we are building is strong.
“You shouldn’t go into every game or every tournament thinking: “what if I don’t win this? Well, I’m going to be really upset and have a bad time”. You have to go in and play your best and try your hardest and put everything you have into it – and if you don’t win, then you don’t win. If you’ve done those things, then you should still have a fulfilling experience and you should still be able to say that you’re proud and that you’ve made progress.
“I like to win, I like to watch the team win, but it’s more important to me that I feel like the team is progressing and I feel like individual players are progressing, and that doesn’t necessarily always come hand in hand with winning.
“The best times are when the progress and development materialises into great performances and victories. Hadrian Cup 2022 was such a time, as the club reached the final of the Antinous Plate. While we lost an incredibly close final in extra time, we finished the day with four wins and one loss, a fantastic achievement for the players and for the club.
“I’m really hoping that the players who go to the Bingham Cup get to have a positive experience and that it justifies the work they’ve done so far.
“It’s obviously a great opportunity to play in front of a crowd at a massive public event. It’s a good opportunity to go and prove to yourself and to other people how far you’ve come in a sport that some people have only taken up for the first time in their 20s, 30s or beyond. I hope people have fun and have a sense that it’s been a significant part of that journey in the sport.”
That idea of progress is one that will be extremely prevalent as the Raptors and Taexali head to the Bingham Cup for the first time. The Aberdeen outfit only started up at the end of 2018, meaning that most of their existence so far has come during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On an individual level, Afuakwa can reflect on his own journey back into rugby union to go alongside his excitement to be taking part in the Bingham Cup – something that was not even close to being on his radar not too long ago.
“Until I joined (the Raptors) last June, I hadn’t played rugby since high school, and back then it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed!” Afuakwah reflected.
“Playing in an inclusive environment is a totally different ballgame from high school PE, and every week I feel like I’m improving in some way. I’m getting fitter, I’m understanding the game more and more, and I feel that not just for myself but for the team too as our connection grows and goes from strength to strength.
“Our energy in some of our most recent games has been electric and we can feel the hard work put in by our teammates and coaches paying off, even when we don’t win. It will be so interesting to see where we’re at compared to IGR teams across the world, and we’ll learn so much from playing against them too.
“Make no mistake, it will be a ton of fun. Hundreds of LGBT+ rugby players and allies in one place for a week, after two years of pandemic and with everything that’s going on in the world right now? It will be chaos! We have such a great time with Taexali on and off the pitch so I have no doubt that this will be tenfold in Ottawa – and we’ll look after each other out there too!”
For the Raptors as a club, there has been plenty of change over the last year or two. They have rebranded and seen a multitude of new players take up rugby at the club, and things appear to be going from strength to strength for them.
While Abrams may be hoping that players can see the progress that they have made on the pitch in Canada, the fact that they are there at all is a testament to the work he has put in as head coach.
“We’ve made a lot of really good progress in the last few years,” he added.
“In the simplest terms, our training numbers are incomparable. For more or less every training session now we have 20-plus players training.
“In 2019, especially once we moved into winter, attendances sometimes dropped down to half a dozen players per session. We’ve gone through the whole of this winter averaging about 20 players at each training session.
“This season we’ve also kept up a schedule of playing a competitive fixture every two weeks, with the exception of us having a break at Christmas. That is also not something that the club would have been capable of doing two years ago. We didn’t have the experience or the numbers and it just wouldn’t have been feasible.
“We undertook a club wide rebrand, and even though we didn’t radically change anything I think we’ve just tried to make incremental improvements in the structure and culture of the club.
“There were no major problems beforehand, it was just about trying to get everyone moving in the same direction and just slowly but surely just building up the training numbers, building up confidence, trying to support individuals new to the sport and getting us into a position where we can start to compete week in, week out in fixtures and also at tournaments.
“I don’t think entering the Bingham Cup would have been remotely possible two years ago, so I’m delighted that we’re now at a stage where it’s something we can take part in. As for Aberdeen, they are just over three years old, so for them to be participating and putting in the number of players they are into Ottawa 2022 is very impressive.”