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As gay rugby tournament opens, Australian Rugby Union unveils plans to tackle discrimination

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SYDNEY - World Cup-winning captains John Eales and Nick Farr-Jones joined with the Australian Rugby Union on Friday for an anti-discrimination policy launch that coincided with the opening day of the Bingham Cup gay rugby tournament.

ARU chief executive Bill Pulver said the "inclusion policy" ensures "every individual, whether they're players, supporters, coaches or administrators, feel safe, welcome and included, regardless of race, gender or sexuality."

"Over the next few months we'll start implementing our policy to ensure everyone involved in our game at all levels is aware of it and understands our expectations."

Eales and Farr-Jones are ambassadors for the 2014 Bingham Cup, which is held every two years. This year it includes 24 teams from 15 countries playing six games each over three days with the final scheduled for Sunday afternoon. It has attracted more than 1,000 players and supporters to Sydney.

"We should commend and celebrate the support around the world to address homophobia and discrimination in sport," Eales, who led Australia on its winning campaign at the 1999 World Cup and to an historic series win over the British and Irish Lions in 2001, told a news conference Friday. "There is still a great deal of work to do, but I'm hopeful we'll soon see a time when athletes at all levels feel comfortable being open about their sexuality and playing the sports they love without fear of discrimination."

Also on Friday, the International Rugby Board signalled its support to the International Gay Rugby Association and the Bingham Cup.

"Rugby recognizes sport's wider responsibility to society and its ability to drive social change," IRB chief executive Brett Gosper said in a statement issued by tournament organizers. "Sport can cross barriers. The Bingham Cup is a symbol of the power of sport to drive social change."

The tournament is named after Mark Bingham, who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 crash of United Airlines flight 93 during the terror attacks in America.

Bingham, an American public relations executive who played rugby for the San Francisco Fog team that includes both gay and straight players, was believed to have been one of the passengers who formed a plan to overtake the plane from the hijackers. The plane, travelling from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all on board.

Brad Thorson, a former college and NFL football player who was briefly with the Arizona Cardinals, came out publicly as gay in July. He's playing for the Fog team in the Sydney tournament.

He said seeing players like Jason Collins and Michael Sam come out "changed my life."

Sam is a St. Louis Rams linebacker who came out after his college playing days at Missouri were over. Sam became the first openly-gay player to be drafted in the NFL and is competing for a roster spot with the Rams. Collins became the first openly-gay athlete in the four major U.S. sports when he came out in April 2013 and played for the NBA's Brooklyn Nets.

"I always assumed I was the only one, that there was no one else like me," Thorson said in a statement released by Bingham Cup organizers. "Seeing people like Jason Collins and Michael Sam come out also changed my life; those guys are breaking down huge barriers in our society.

"I always feared that the reaction was going to be one of exclusion and shock. What I found was that being open and honest with my fraternal brothers gave them the opportunity to be open and honest with me about what was happening in their lives, and our relationships have only gotten stronger."

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