As the powerbrokers of Australian rugby - Wallaby David Pocock, national coach Ewen McKenzie and ARU boss Bill Pulver - placed the Bingham Cup in a cabinet alongside the code's prized silverware, Sydney Convicts player Patrick Walsh wondered if the old timers were turning in their graves.

''There's two women's trophies there - and now there's going to be a gay rugby trophy,'' the halfback thought. ''They'd be thinking, 'Bloody women and poofs - what's the world coming to?' ''

The answer is that, by some measures, rugby is coming to a place of openness, backed widely in principle - and soon to be formalised - by the ARU's Inclusion Policy, which Pulver said would try to stamp out ''all forms of discrimination and homophobia from our game''.

''We want to make sure that any individual - whether they're players, supporters, coaches or administrators - feels safe, welcome and included, regardless of race, gender or sexuality,'' the chief executive said, before promising the ARU's ''full resources'' for the Bingham Cup tournament, otherwise known as the Gay Rugby World Cup, to be held in Australia next year.

As supportive as the ARU is, the fact there is a gay rugby movement at all may be symptomatic of the problem. And, Pocock believes, rugby is not alone in having plenty of work to do. Asked if Australian professional sport was now an environment in which a player could comfortably come out, Pocock said: ''You'd like to say it is, but if you look at the statistics, it clearly isn't. I don't know of anyone playing any of the contact football codes in Australia who's openly out. But statistically, there has to be some.''

No one has the right to tell an athlete to declare their sexuality, Pocock said. ''But I think it's up to the different codes to make their sport an inclusive environment, an environment where people feel they can be themselves and it won't be held against them.''

Walsh, who has played for the Convicts for three years, kept his sexuality quiet at his old club for fear it would be held against him.

The 48-year-old spent years at Oakhill Old Boys and played a club-record 298 games. He never discussed his sexuality because ''the question was never asked''.

But when a colleague who had recently stopped playing for the club said he was gay, Walsh was surprised by the response of some of his former teammates and glad he had not come out.

''The comments I heard were pretty shocking,'' he says. ''You stand there and listen to it and try to work out what's going on, whether some guys get in on it because they think it's funny or whatever. I just thought, 'Now I know what these guys are like.' ''

Walsh joined the Convicts, where it might be surprising to hear the environment is not all that different to his former club. ''I didn't say anything at my old club because you don't go to a rugby club to announce your sexuality, you go to play rugby,'' he says. ''It's the same at the Convicts. We have straight guys, gay guys - we don't really talk about sexuality.

If it's not an important topic, why have a club that identifies itself as gay? ''Because when you are being discriminated against, you can't feel part of a team,'' he says. ''When there are people talking behind your back, you're uncomfortable and not being treated equally. The thing about this team is that it doesn't matter what your sexuality is or how well you play - it's totally inclusive.''

Ultimately, therefore, genuine progress would mean no need for ''a gay team'', Walsh suggests. ''It's like the whole gay marriage thing,'' he says. ''In 20 years' time we'll look back and just go, 'Can you believe that even happened?' In 20 years' time gay rugby players will be totally accepted.''

Convicts founder Andrew Purchas echoed Walsh's sentiment. ''We didn't start the Sydney Convicts to make a political message or to change the world,'' he says. ''We started it only to provide people the opportunity to play the great game of rugby.''