Opinion: Johnstone's courage will help more than rugby players

Campbell Johnstone carries the ball in a Test against Fiji in 2005.

There are probably a couple ways to view Campbell Johnstone’s revelations on Seven Sharp last night that he is gay: that it took undeniable courage for him to become the first current or former All Black to publicly say so, and that, in 2023, it required courage for him to do so.

It’s important to remember that attitudes within the All Blacks have changed significantly over the last two decades but that this remained a last threshold to be crossed.

Once, knowledge earned on and off the pitch was jealously guarded lest up-and-comers improve to the extent that an incumbent’s position could be under threat.

Vulnerabilities were rarely shown – the title of John Kirwan’s book published as recently as 2010 is All Blacks Don’t Cry.

Heavy drinking after matches was condoned or at least accepted.

Similarly, outright violence. Even within top provincial teams, the act of attempting to sit in the back of the team bus even 10 years ago could be met with little sympathy from those who had “earned the right” to sit there.

Indeed, it was often a rite of passage for more inexperienced players to “storm the back” – effectively to run a gauntlet of kicks and punches and occasionally worse when alcohol was involved.

Now, knowledge is shared widely between positional rivals at the top level and vulnerabilities are frequently talked about within and outside the team – Anton Lienert-Brown is one of the highest-profile current All Blacks to speak about his struggles off the pitch (he did so before and during the 2019 World Cup), opening the way for others to do so.

All Blacks halfbacks Brad Weber and TJ Perenara have become outspoken supporters of the LGBTQIA+ community.

But, despite the evolving attitudes, Johnstone is the first All Black to come out of the closet since New Zealand’s national team was formed in 1892.

A rugby player coming out as gay shouldn’t be a significant news event, but it is, and now that Johnstone has it should be significantly easier for others to do so.

It's probably important to note too that Johnstone's sexuality won't come as a huge surprise to many in the rugby community or those on its fringes, but the burden he had been carrying was clear to see during his interview with Hilary Barry.

Johnstone told Barry that he didn't feel his true self belonged in the All Blacks - that he didn't fit the "mould".

He also spoke of “closure” for himself and the All Blacks.

That may apply to the nation as well.


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