Shoelaces are a small, but integral part of rugby. And with the help of one Aotearoa team they've become a mighty symbol of pride on and off the pitch.

Blog by Jane Groufsky, Curator Social History. 

This small pair of shoelaces can speak volumes about recent developments in Aotearoa sporting history. These laces were worn by a player from the NZ Falcons, a gay and inclusive rugby union team based at Ponsonby Rugby Club (PRC). Established in 2013, the Falcons are the second club of this kind to be associated with PRC; predecessors the Ponsonby Heroes were the second gay rugby team in New Zealand. Ponsonby has a history of being an inclusive club, establishing an all-Samoan team in 1968 at a time when Pacific players had not been welcomed by other union rugby clubs. Sir Bryan Williams, PRC legend and former club manager, has been a champion of the Heroes and then the NZ Falcons, telling RNZ in 2018: “We were pretty supportive of the fact gay rugby players wanted to play for Ponsonby. We welcomed anyone with a great love of the game”. The Falcons include members of all levels of experience, from newcomers to veterans.

 


Rainbow shoelaces, Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 2019.58.1

The NZ Falcons have competed on the world stage, first fielding a team in the 2014 Bingham Cup in Sydney. Named in memory of Mark Kendall Bingham, a keen rugby player and hero of the United Airlines Flight 93 hijacking on September 11, 2001, the Bingham Cup is a biennial international tournament for gay and inclusive teams. In 2014 the Falcons won the middle-tier Bingham Bowl and their players have joined other teams in every tournament since, most recently with Houston’s Space City team in Ottawa in 2022. The Falcons have also competed in the trans-Tasman Purchas Cup tournament several times, taking home the second division Purchas Shield in 2023.

These rainbow laces were donated to the Museum in 2018, when they were an essential part of the Falcons uniform. Rainbow laces have been used in the wider rugby community as a way to signal support for LGBTQIA+ causes. In 2018 the Falcons gifted rainbow laces to the Waikato Chiefs, and halfback Brad Weber wore a pair alongside other teammates in a game against the Queensland Reds. This was soon after Wallabies player Israel Folau had come under fire for expressing his religious belief that homosexual people were bound for hell. In November the same year, the All Blacks donned rainbow laces in a game against Italy following a homophobic attack on gay former Lions and Wales captain Gareth Thomas.

A wider campaign around rainbow laces is run by Stonewall UK, with an emphasis on the role of allyship. Research conducted for Stonewall in 2017 found that “more than 43% of LGBTQ+ people think public sporting events aren’t a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ people”. Stonewall wants people to “lace up and speak up”, aiming to give people the confidence and tools to speak out against anti-LGBTQIA+ language in sport. The wearing of rainbow laces has become a small but powerful gesture of inclusivity.

Photographs of NZ Falcons by Clinton Bird (Perth, Australia), courtesy of NZ Falcons.