Keegan Hirst reverses decision to quit rugby league after Manly Eagles controversy

Rugby league's first openly gay player has reversed his decision to quit the game after a group of Australian players refused to wear a shirt promoting sexual equality.

Keegan Hirst, a former Wakefield, Halifax and Batley player, hung up his boots in 2020 – five years after becoming the first British player to publicly come out.

But he said he wanted to "do something" to tackle homophobia after a controversial protest by players from the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) team Manly Sea Eagles.

They said they would boycott a key championship match over their team's decision to wear a gay pride jersey sporting rainbow colours.

'Progress is really hard won'

Hirst, 34, said: "Manly was the straw that broke the camel's back. I'd been um-ing and ah-ing about it... then I realised I'm doing all this talking and actions speak louder than words.

"People boycotting playing because of a rainbow on a shirt – it just shows that progress is really hard won. It's not permanent and representation and visibility matter. So I could sit on the side and I be a mouthpiece all I want, but realistically I can do something.

"I'm still in a position where I can put on my rainbow laces, get the boots on, go out and be that representation and role model for people... in 2022 it shouldn't take all this uproar to put a jersey on with a rainbow."

Keegan, who is divorced with children, played more than 300 times before retiring, including in Super League for Wakefield. He was playing for Halifax when he announced his retirement after the Covid pandemic started and he became "disillusioned" with rugby.

Keegan Hirst played 66 times for Wakefield Trinity Credit: PA

It followed homophobic remarks from the Australian player Israel Folau.

Hirst said: "To be honest it put me off rugby a little bit so I just decided to distance myself from it and I decided not to come back.

"The kids were getting older and I just wanted to spend more time with those guys and now they are pretty much teenagers and don't want to spend time with me so it's opened the door to come back."

He says he is in "decent nick" and has re-signed for his home-town club, Batley Bulldogs.

"It would be nice to get that number up a bit more so there's that, a bit of personal pride, finishing on my terms rather than because of Covid on a damp squib," he said

But the main reason for Keegan's return is his aim to inspire others, particularly young sportspeople who may hold back for fear of abuse.

"Who knows maybe there's some kid who watches this, who loves rugby and thinks I can be gay and play rugby.

He added: "I'm under no illusions I don't have a huge platform but it's just about showing people that you can be gay and play a sport, you can be out and proud and play at a professional level."

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