International Gay Rugby (IGR) chair Karl Ainscough-Gates will mark the end of an era in more ways than one when the Bingham Cup takes place in Ottawa in August.

Ainscough-Gates had expected to begin his tenure as IGR chair in the Canadian city in 2020, but the inclusive tournament had to be postponed twice due to the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That Ottawa can finally host the Bingham Cup as the Briton reaches the end of his two-year term is cause for celebration, however, the occasion has been given added significance due to the fact it will also be his final tournament as a player.

It is now 16 years since Ainscough-Gates was convinced to head down to training at Newcastle Ravens having been handed a flyer on a student night out and he admits he “probably will be quite emotional for that last game”.

“I found that as I got into my mid-30s, the knocks have got slightly more challenging to recover from and I think it's my time to hang up my boots and probably do a bit more on the support side,” Ainscough-Gates told World Rugby.

“It was a challenge [to make the decision to retire]. Rugby's been a massive part of my life, the amount of joy and experiences across the world that I've had have been amazing and it's really been quite fulfilling.

“But I think there's a time where you need to look and go, I'm not keeping up with the guys who are in their 20s, mid-20s, or running up and down the pitch the same.

“Fair enough, you can use skill to a certain extent, but the knocks get a bit harder. So, looking forward we are also looking at raising a family and different things, and that's all been taken into consideration really when I made the decision to hang my boots up this season.”

Taking a breather

As we chat, Ainscough-Gates is sitting in the passenger seat as he and his husband drive down to England’s south-west coast for a well-deserved break.

“He's there laughing because he knows I'll shed a tear or two,” Ainscough-Gates admitted. “He probably will as well to be fair. I don't know whether they'll be tears of happiness or sadness for me!”

Ainscough-Gates is keen to stay involved with current club Manchester Village Spartans but is going to take a couple of months to decide where exactly to devote his energy.

“I've put a lot into International Gay Rugby and into my clubs over the past few years. I'm just going to take a breather for a few months and then from there I will probably work out the best path,” he added.

“I've not done coaching before. It might be that another committee role suits me better, but I think from an International Gay Rugby point of view, I'll always be there to give support, advise and volunteer on specific projects.

“But I think what I really want to do is try to get involved at a club level and get people involved in rugby like I was 16 years ago, because it was the welcoming nature of the people that we met back then.

“I say we because my partner was around then, and we've made lifelong friends at the Newcastle Ravens and in the whole IGR family.”

“Really something special”

At the outset of his two-year tenure as chair, Ainscough-Gates hoped to be able to help support the sustainable growth of IGR and its member clubs.

He is happy that having come through the worst of the pandemic, the last nine months have allowed him and the organisation to concentrate on on-pitch matters while continuing their collaborative engagement with World Rugby, which includes regular planning and communications calls, building on the Memorandum of Understanding signed back in 2015.

As well as the Bingham Cup 2022, IGR have worked hard to make sure that both the Union Cup, a tournament for inclusive club teams in Europe, and the North American Championship return stronger than ever.

This season in the UK, meanwhile, IGR supported a national league, split into north and south divisions, which culminated in a grand final in Leeds recently.

“Being able to bring things together like that, that have been a culmination of years of work to get the leagues working and different things has been really key. So, if we could try to replicate that elsewhere it would be brilliant,” Ainscough-Gates said.

“We really have been a busy executive committee this year. It's not just me, it's me and my other six trustees and regional reps and all the working groups and things as well. So, it's been really quite a fantastic tenure and to preside over International Gay Rugby in its 20th year was really something special.”

He may shed a tear as he signs off from his time as both a player and as chair of IGR, but Ainscough-Gates is certain the organisation has a bright future ahead of it.

Ainscough-Gates points to an increase in women’s teams among the IGR membership as well as its move into mixed ability and touch rugby as signs of the progress it continues to make.

“You can look back and go, ‘I wasn't able to do that, that didn't really go my way’, but that's life,” he said. “I am so proud of the work that we've done to make International Gay Rugby a more inclusive place for everyone.

“I think that people can think, well it's International Gay Rugby, it must be inclusive anyway. But you've got to work at that, you've got to work at promoting inclusivity and diversity within organisations and we, as an organisation, are now a gold standard for the work that we do within diversity and inclusion.”

As he approaches the end of his playing career, what advice would Ainscough-Gates give someone who was thinking about starting their own journey in rugby?

“It’s always difficult making that first step, making contacts or sitting in the car in the car park and making that decision to go to that first training session,” he said.

“You've just got to take that leap of faith. There are some amazing people, and you'll make lifelong friendships.”

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