Last month, the second-row became the first professional Irish rugby player to speak publicly about being bisexual. A highly-rated prospect who also studies theoretical physics at Trinity College, he explains why the time was right and how he doesn’t want to be labelled as a result
As he makes his way across a busy junction, glancing at his phone to locate the coffee shop where we’ve arranged to meet, Jack Dunne cuts a striking figure. Standing 6ft 8in tall and filling out his frame, he sports shoulder-length hair, a beard and wearing ripped jeans, the highly-rated Leinster second-row stands out from the crowd.
He isn’t yet on first-name terms with the nation, but last month the 22-year-old decided to raise his head above the parapet as he became the first professional Irish rugby player to speak publicly about being bisexual. Suddenly, he was making headlines.
The 22-year-old from Glenageary refuses to be stereotyped; he juggles his rugby with the study of theoretical physics at Trinity and, while he has been open about his sexuality since his school days, he knew that going public would invite a level of focus not normally placed on a player with 15 senior caps to his name.
It would have been easy to do what some of the more aggressive online commenters have said and ‘shut up and stick to the rugby’, but Dunne knew that by speaking at a Leinster Rugby and Bank of Ireland Pride webinar and giving an interview to BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast, he could potentially help someone who was grappling with their own identity and sexuality.
So, he joined Craig Doyle, Ireland international Lindsay Peat and the other panellists to speak about his experience. He didn’t know how it would be received, but he’s been bowled over by the response.
“Last week was quite overwhelming at times, your phone is blowing up. It was mad enough,” he says.
“It was quite daunting, but I thought it was important and worth the sacrifice.
“I got loads of messages, one or two of my brothers’ friends have come out and said, ‘you were really helpful on this’, I’ve got loads of random tweets from people all over the world, someone in America – it’s mad that people who might not know that much about rugby hear about this – it’s definitely been worth it.”
As a teenager, Dunne grappled with how and when to tell people his story.
He remembers the sting of the words used by other boys, their throwaway remarks and how they made him feel.
“Most teenagers have a rough time for some parts of it and, yeah, it was really difficult for a good few years,” he says.
“It was actually when I realised it first, I thought ‘this is grand’, but teenage boys say things. You take them wrong and say to yourself, ‘maybe I shouldn’t tell people about this’.
“For about a year or so I was pretty unhappy with it, then eventually when I was in fifth year I was just OK with this, but I’m not just not going to tell anyone. Then, eventually, I just thought, ‘I may as well’.
“It is difficult, now I realise that most people don’t mean anything by it. But, when you’re 16 or 17, you’re very impressionable, you think that really is what they do mean and you’re upset by it.
“It was very positive when I told people, only one or two people who took issue with it and that’s grand, I can take that. The majority were delighted for me and said well done for doing it and treated me the same.”
By the time he entered the world of professional sport, people within the Leinster set-up knew Dunne’s story. He was just their team-mate, a promising second-row.
Unsurprisingly, when Dunne chose to tell his story to the wider world he made headlines due to the rarity of a professional sportsman speaking openly about coming out. He hopes that the days of this being something of an oddity are coming to an end.
“It’s weird, you look at it as a numbers game and there has to be more than are out. It is definitely still a thing,” he says.
“It would be great if it wasn’t a thing that you had to come out, I’m sure there’s plenty of people who are possibly out privately but not publicly.
“That’s good for them as well, they can do what they want. You’d almost think that it shouldn’t be a thing at this stage, maybe in 10 years it will be different, but you look at how much things have come on in the last 20 years, there’s been huge leaps and bounds and you’d have to hope that the same will happen in the next 20 years and this is a non-story.”
Dunne only has the Leinster dressing-room to judge by, but his experience has been positive.
“I hear people talking about things 15, 20 years ago and it sounds like it was a different place back then,” he says of an environment commonly perceived to be a macho place.
“But now, you hear about ‘locker room talk’ and it doesn’t really exist in Leinster anyway, I can’t talk about other clubs.
“It’s not this hyper-masculine, everyone trying to be the big man – we’re good people, there’s not really any of the stereotypical chat, the jocks and all of that. It’s pretty much all positive, a bunch of lads hanging out in the changing-room most of the time. Nothing really negative.”
Perhaps it’s his self-effacing nature, but, to hear Dunne tell it, he is something of an accidental rugby player.
Growing up, he wanted to be an astronaut but he grew too much and is now too tall to fit the criteria.
His parents have an interest in rugby without being fanatics. His mother Olwyn took up running in her 40s and was crowned the national 50km champion within a few years, while his father Joe is also a marathon runner.
The eldest of three brothers, he always loved playing rugby and stood out due to his size and his ability.
“I got lucky with the size,” he says. “I got picked for the Leinster U-18s when I probably wasn’t good enough, they probably said if we can get this guy good then he might be decent.
“I didn’t work hard to be this size – it just naturally came, it’s definitely a blessing and something that got me included in a squad or two.”
Clearly, there was plenty to go with it but the professional game wasn’t really on his radar until he made the Ireland U-20s.
Dunne was considering pulling back after that year to focus on his studies, perhaps with a view of going to work in CERN in the future.
That was until Paul O’Connell, the forwards coach for the U-20s that year, pulled him to one side.
“I told some of the academy coaches that I might want to focus on college more than rugby, that had been my thinking leaving school,” he recalls. “So I think they might have told him to ‘have a word and tell him to cop on!’
“He told me I could do both, have a really good career and still do college.
“So I was thinking, ‘if he thinks I’m good, then I suppose I might not be too bad’.
“It was mad (having O’Connell as a coach), I remember we all walked in one day and saw him sitting at the back. Someone read an article saying he was joining us and we thought it would be for a week or two, but when we realised it was the rest of the season it was incredible.
“Definitely, he had a massive impact.
“I didn’t think I was good enough. I remember being in a car with (St Michael’s coach) Andy Skehan, coming home from training and he asked if I thought I’d go pro – I didn’t think so. He said, ‘Are you sure?’
“It’s easy enough though, you get the call that you’re picked for the Leinster U-20s, you go and do that for the summer and then they’re like, you made the sub-academy, the Ireland U-20s – I always loved playing rugby, always wanted to be better at it. I hadn’t been thinking too much about making a career out of this until the Six Nations of the U-20s, I realised this actually could have been a career for me – I got into the academy and went from there.”
The youngster did his first two years in Trinity full-time, but the work-load was too much and he has opted to spread the final two years over three.
Balancing a professional rugby career and such a subject as intense and demanding as theoretical physics has not always been easy.
“I always loved maths and physics in school, I’d watch YouTube videos with physics stuff,” he explains.
“I was deciding what I wanted to do in college and was thinking about doing a business course, because that’s what everyone does, but I didn’t have much interest in that.
“So I decided this is really interesting and gave it a go.
“I did my first two years full-time, it was too much with the rugby, so I am splitting up my last two years.
“I got really lucky. Our class rep (Shane Keane) was brilliant, he put all his notes on a drive so that’s basically how I got through.
“When Covid happened, it was the best thing for my studies because all the lectures had to go online.
“It wasn’t as good as the real thing because you couldn’t ask questions, but I wouldn’t have got through it without him.
“It’s really tough, sometimes I get home from training and try to study and I forget things because I’m too tired, doing the work is counter-productive.
“I’ve gotten better at boxing things off, not trying to do three hours and focusing on getting an hour done instead.
“It’s almost better to do less sometimes when you’re tired. It’s better now that I’ve split the years, it’s more manageable and enjoyable.”
As he’s gotten older, rugby has become more serious. Heads are being turned by the big young man filling out the blue jersey.
During lockdown, Dunne bulked up and it was noticeable that his performances at the top level were becoming more impactful before he suffered a freak broken ankle in training.
“It definitely came at a tough time, I missed the end of the season, but the good thing is that I should hopefully be back just before the start of next season,” he says of the injury.
“Maybe I won’t get as much field work done as everyone else, but hopefully I’ll be in a really good position physically and I’ll be able to jump back into things.”
By that stage, he hopes that the fuss will have died down and he’ll be able to focus on the job.
“That would kind of be the plan, I thought it was important to put it out there and I don’t mind talking about it once or twice, but I don’t want it to be any time I’m playing a rugby game – if I’m doing an interview, that’s the question I’m asked,” he says.
“It’s different, it’s quite new. I can understand why loads of people want to ask questions but definitely in the future I’d like to do my job.”
He will continue to work with ‘Shout-out’, a charity that aims to improve life for LGBTQ+ people by sharing their stories and educating students, teachers and parents.
“Their mission focus is if you explain it to people, they’re more likely to be welcoming of it,” he says. “A lot of anger is from ignorance and that can lead to malice.”
As we’ve seen across the spectrum over the last 18 months, the athlete’s voice can be a powerful thing.
Dunne has used his for a positive cause as he continues to blur the lines of what we expect from our professional sportsmen.
Just don’t ask him to put himself in a box.
“Describing yourself is the worst question, I can never describe myself!” he smiles. “I don’t really know, I don’t think I should rank things, they’re all just a part of me like everyone is a part of everyone.
“They’re all just stuck in a stew and that’s who I am.”