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Meet the Azlans, Northern Ireland's only predominantly gay rugby team

By Lisa Smyth

Published 27/04/2016

Kevin Bartlett, centre with some of his Azlans team-mates. Image: www.gnimag.com
Kevin Bartlett, centre with some of his Azlans team-mates. Image: www.gnimag.com
Stephen Aiken. Image: www.gnimag.com

A group of dedicated sportsmen have got together to create Northern Ireland's only gay rugby team in a bid to make the game more inclusive.

Better than that, the Belfast-based Azlans club is open to all - young and old, gay and straight, complete beginners and those with a great deal more experience.

Kevin Bartlett, the man behind the team, explained: "The Azlans are actually an inclusive team. It is about welcoming everyone and making everyone feel welcome."

Antrim man Kevin, a disability support officer, has been involved in inclusive sport for the past 20 years.

He was involved heavily with the Ulster Titans, Northern Ireland's first gay-friendly rugby club, before it ceased to exist.

"Like I said, the Azlans are inclusive," he continued. "Yes, the team is open to gay people, but you don't have to be gay to get involved. We're open to all.

"It came about because a lot of people were saying to me that they would like to play rugby but they didn't know where to go.

"We are there for people who maybe have never played rugby before, for whatever reason, or maybe they would like to get back into the sport. You can come along and learn and train. Everyone is accepted - it doesn't matter who they are.

"We thought there was an interest out there, so we put something up on Facebook and made up some leaflets and 15 people turned up on the first night.

"The team is inclusive. It offers the opportunity to develop and there is also a safe environment but it isn't all about just being gay.

Belfast-based Azlans club on cover of GNI Mag
Belfast-based Azlans club on cover of GNI Mag

"Yes, there are gay people who come along and feel comfortable, but it is actually about targeting everyone, for example the person who has always played Gaelic but thinks they would like to give rugby a go."

Stephen Aiken, from south Belfast, has been involved with the team since it was first set up towards the end of last year. "I only played rugby in school and it was only during the last few years when a new teacher brought it to the school," explained the 27-year-old, a hair colourist who works on the Lisburn Road.

"After school, I would have run for Northern Ireland, so I was more involved in independent sports rather than team sports.

"But I heard about the Azlans and thought I would give it a go and I have really enjoyed it.

"I work an awful lot and I don't really get to do an awful lot except work and sleep, and I thought this would be an opportunity to do something different.

"It is designed for people of all levels - for complete beginners to people who are really into the game but have been out for a while because of injury.

"When we are out on the pitch, you realise how well everyone gets on - what happens on the pitch doesn't affect what happens when you come off it.

"It's great because you don't have to put on a front, you can be yourself in front of everyone and be comfortable."

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