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Gay Times January 08 - Issue 352

Ben Cohen - England’s Dreaming

Pictures: Fabrice Lachont
Interview by Joseph Galliano

Ben Cohen is one of the hottest Rugby players Britain has ever produced – in every sense of the word: Cohen is the second-highest all-time Rugby Union England try-scorer and, well…just look at those thighs and eyes… He’s just completed a calendar that is flying off the shelves at Prowler. GT caught up with him at the start of his testimonial year, and while he is between clubs.

Why did you want to talk to a gay magazine?
I used to get mail and cards from the gay community. When the internet got bigger, quite a lot of hits and fan messages [seemed to be] from gay people. Also, I’ve just done another calendar…

Tell us about it…
At first I really didn’t fancy it. I’ve done it once before and I didn’t really want to do it again. But there was plenty of interest from the gay market. I know that they’re probably going to sell quite well, but there was heartache doing them. I think I did the shoot on the Friday before the Monday my new twins were born. Hectic.

So, talking to a gay magazine…
If most of your fan base is gay people, why not go to them?

You’re doing a signing of calendars at the Prowler store in Soho later. How does that make you feel as a straight guy, to put yourself out there like that?
I just don’t understand why people should have a problem; I don’t get it. If the gay market likes you, or fancies you, it shouldn’t bother you. It does some people, and obviously they’re very… homophobic? But you’re only here once, and you’ve got to enjoy and be yourself.

A lot of straight men would feel very uncomfortable by the idea of being ogled by other men.
I’m pretty chilled, laid-back guy. I’m not bothered by anything like that, really.

You’ve done your own calendar. Would you ever do anything like the Dieux Du Stade, the French Rugby players’ calendar?
I did underwear stuff for Sloggi, because sometimes you’ve got to give back a little bit in some sort of way. (Thinks) You mean, get naked and stuff?

You get paid very well to do it, but it’s not really my cup of tea.

Most of society has accepted there are gay men and lesbians among them – why has sport been so backward?
Hypothetically, if a gay player is a good sportsman but the people around him are very uncomfortable, then the team isn’t going to perform. It’s different if it’s just a single person, like a tennis player or golfer. They’re in their own environment, and they can choose the people they have around them.

So, gay team-mates would upset the balance of the team?

Have you ever been in a team where you’ve known there was a gay player?
No. If so, it was never mentioned.

Do you find it surprising?
Yes. It’s 2007. Everyone who’s gay should be able to come out and be proud of who they are and what they want to do. Why live in shame, or in regret or anything like that?

Your family were involved in nightclubs. Did that open your eyes to gay people?
Yes. I saw it all from an early age. Plus, one of my dad’s aunts is a lesbian. I’ve been around the nightclub industry a lot. I don’t go out much myself now because, especially in a small town, sometimes you can get picked on. And my dad was killed in his club. I prefer the countryside; we have horses and animals and now two little girls, so I keep myself away.

What kind of impact did your father’s death have on you?
It was a horrible time. He was a fantastic man. I respect him highly. I miss him dearly – especially when you get married and have kids [and he’s gone]. That’s hard. We miss him very much and it should never have happened. But if I were to die tomorrow, I’d want my wife to carry on living… I’d like her to mourn for a couple of days, obviously!

What kind of values or lesson did he inculcate in you?
Stand up for yourself, protect yourself.

In your family you’ve got two World Cup winners, Rugby and Football.
My uncle George [Cohen] was in the ’66 World Cup Football squad. Also, my great-great-granddad was the 1902 British bare knuckle champion. It’s in the family, sport.
I mean, I’m no good at Football – two left feet – but Rugby; being more physical, I enjoy that.

Millions of pounds are pumped into Football, but Rugby often suffers financially. Did football ever seem attractive to you?
It was only really in the mid-90s that people where earning stupid amounts of money in Football. I got into Rugby to make up the numbers, really, and I enjoyed it. I just wasn’t very good at Football, basically. But the money they get! I say fair play to them, but I would take it any day of the week.

Will Rugby follow Football financially?
Rugby players need to get paid more. Because it’s a contact sport, insurance isn’t cheap and you’re probably looking at £1500 a year per £100,000 for the insurance, probably a bit more now. It covers you in most things, but it’s a hell of a lot of money for not total cover. Some players don’t insure themselves properly, because they can’t afford it. You need to leave the sport at least having a house paid off, a car, and some money in the bank. But not everyone can do that.

You were talking about the injuries; how do you deal with all of that?
It’s part of it. We have ice baths – they’re fucking horrible! You get used to them; they become part of your life. I played four internationals – against New Zealand, South Africa twice and Argentina – and a club game with a dislocated shoulder and a fractured collarbone, having been told it was a trapped nerve.

What else have you had?
Broken fingers, broken leg… I pop ribs all the time, pull muscles. But general soreness happens every day, every time you train. You always get more injuries training than you do playing. But you get used to it.

If a top sportsman were to come out now, how do you think it would be received?
Sports is probably calling for it. Also, like American basketball player Dennis Rodman – he’s pierced and tattooed – you’d have a different spin on publicity. But anyone coming out would need to be very strong-headed, very confident, and have the gift of the gab. People would say “Oh, he’s gay, he should go play for the girls” or “She’s a lezza”, whatever. You know what it’s like, no doubt. But as long as someone can do the job, why should anyone give a shit? Fair day’s work, fair day’s pay. They’ll have some difficulties, but the good will outweigh the bad.

Are there commercial pressures to keep people in, in terms of sponsorship opportunities?
A person who wants to come out in the sporting industry could do very well now.

The FA has a drive to tackle homophobia in Football. Are you aware of it?
No, we all know about the racism in Rugby or Football, but that’s about it.

I’d never heard of that word in Rugby. But we’d all go out to support it willingly.

You left Northampton in August. What happened?
It was booted around that it was because I didn’t get to be team captain, but that wasn’t true. I’d been there for over half my life. I love the club – there are numbers of reasons – but it’s something I wanted to keep quiet and amicable. It’d gone a little bit stale and I needed a change, so I paid my money and left under good terms.

Future plans? There’s been speculation you were going to retire…
I’ve got four or five years left in the sport – and I just want to play Rugby. I’m just sorting it out now. I was never going to retire. I’m just weighing up where I want to go.

Obviously we don’t want to do talk about anything that’s going to create problems for you, but we’d heard that you were close to signing for Leicester…
Leicester was an option, but we’ve got quite a lot of options. There are some pros and cons we’ve just got to iron out. We’ll go from there. We’re not currently in negotiations with Leicester.

How did it feel to be part of the Rugby Union World Cup?
When you’re a kid, running around in the garden, it’s always scoring that winning World Cup drop goal that you play. To get to play for my country was one thing; to go to a World Cup and try to emulate what my uncle did in ’66 was something else! We were on fire. We went into that tour and lived up to being the best team in the world. It was fantastic, but when we came home things went mad. On the plane on the way back we were having a few beers and getting drunk and enjoying it. We’d been away from home five months. It was like achieving our Everest. …We got out at Heathrow and, fucking hell, there were people everywhere. They were hanging off absolutely everything.

What happened next?
We did the parade down Oxford Street, Park Lane, and there was only one man and his dog. I was thinking, “Fucking hell, what are we doing here?” Then suddenly we got to Marble Arch and there were a million people. I thought, “Fucking hell!” It was absolutely crazy, everyone hanging out the windows. So we were greeted by a million people, went to Number Ten, met Tony Blair, had a coffee and cake, then went round to see the Queen.

What did the Queen say to you?
I spoke to Phillip. They had fucking Corgis everywhere, so I stroked them – and they fucking stank. I thought, “I can’t shake the Queen’s hand with my hand like this.” I could smell it, so I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll go wash my hands.” When we got our MBEs, I met her then. It was a pretty strange day. Not many people can say they got greeted by a million people and met the Prime Minister and the Queen on the same day.

It says on your website you love girly gossip mags.
I love all those Heat-type magazines. I like the gossip, and looking at the pictures.

But in something like Heat, they’ve got the circle pointing to their cellulite!
They’re hilarious! How the hell do they get away with it?

One last question about your career. You’re the second-highest try-scorer in English Rugby history. It’s impressive.
I don’t want to say it’s impressive – that sounds arrogant – but you think to yourself, “Ah fucking hell, it’s absolutely amazing,” and things like that. Someone can actually do that – it seems like you’re talking about a different person.

When I was a kid, schools still all had playing fields and did full PE lessons. Now it seems they’ve all sold off their playing fields and health & safety rules have cut down activity.
And they’re missing out on a good deal of athletes who are not getting the best opportunity at state schools. Some schools are very poor in what they provide. Now, if you want to become a better sportsman, you have to go and join a club. Before, you could just try it out at school to see if you enjoyed it.

What do you think the implications are for the future of sport?
We’re seeing it now with the 2012 Olympics. No-one’s coming through. Regarding health & safety, we’ve become a blame culture. In the 80s, my elders always said, “When I was younger, you’d get a clip round the ear”. But now, they’d get sued and lose their job. I love the old-fashioned culture. Sometimes a smack around the back of the legs or something like that can go a lot further than saying no.

More from Gay Times January 08 - Issue 352