France’s network of gay rugby clubs are closing ranks to challenge homophobic sentiment on and off the pitch as the World Cup gears up to its first match.

French gay rugby clubs game relatively late to the game, sometime after the UK, South Africa and Australia started the trend, but they are intent on making up lost ground.

“It always surprises people when at the beginning of a match we introduce ourselves as a gay team, but once on the pitch, we earn the other side’s respect,” Christophe Solignac, trainer for the “Melee Alpine” (Alpine Scrum) team in Grenoble in the French Alps told AFP.

“Ultimately, we share the same passion regardless of our sexuality. Straight rugby men who play against us know it’s a very tough sport, and our sexuality doesn’t stop us training in the snow in winter, when the temperature falls below freezing!”

“And the old fantasy about gay rugby men mucking around in the showers or the locker rooms really is a load of rubbish,” he said.

The UK is proud to boast the world’s first fully-registered gay club – the London Steelers.

Other notable teams include Sydney club the POOFTAs and South Africa’s Jamieson Raiders.

The French Mediterranean city of Montpellier hosted Europe’s first Union Cup in 2005. This year’s event took place in Copenhagen.

But Serge Simon, former international player and author of a study into homophobic sentiment in France, says the battle for equality is far from over.

“Rugby is an environment based on archaic values, on the permanent negation of any trace of femininity,” he told the .

“Players constantly have to show who is the most virile, the most powerful.”