How the world’s first vegan rugby club challenges stereotypes and fights for the environment

December 14 2023

Green Gazelles, the world’s first-ever vegan rugby club, has made headlines since it was first founded five years ago. Since 2018, founder Brendon Bale and the club’s players and supporters have all been on a mission to promote the benefits of a plant-based diet.

But the Green Gazelles community has big ambitions, and it’s not stopping there. So how does the pioneering rugby club plan on caring for the planet?

The journey to Green Gazelles

The idea for Green Gazelles Rugby Club emerged when founder Brendon Bale first turned to a plant-based diet. A rugby player since the age of six, Bale felt transformed by the change.

‘I didn’t know anything about veganism before,’ Bale says. ‘I did it for a week and felt great, did it for six weeks and felt amazing, and haven’t looked back since.’

Bale found that eating a vegan diet improved his energy levels, and helped him to train harder and recover quicker. He even found that his strength and agility were improved.

‘The benefits are actually really big with rugby,’ he says. ‘You’re getting heavy impacts all the time, so an anti-inflammatory diet can be really beneficial.’

At first, Bale was focused on the health benefits, but he soon began to think about the wider impact of eating a vegan diet.

‘I began to think about our connection to animals and the environment, and the wider impact that veganism can have,’ he says.

From there, he began to think about finding a community.

‘I formed Green Gazelles on that basis—to find likeminded people,’ he says. ‘It started pretty small, and grew from there.’

Now, Green Gazelles is an invitational rugby team and established community space for rugby and environmental enthusiasts, who compete in 7s tournaments and exhibition rugby fixtures. Any player in the world is welcome to join.

The Green Gazelles network now includes more than 250 players and partners, all of whom have committed to ‘normalise veganism, raise funds for charity, and promote earth caring habits’. The club’s chef and nutritionist provides vegan food and recipes to the squad and fans.

The club’s tagline is ‘promoting a more compassionate and eco-friendly future through sport’, and Bale and the team are clear that they want to break down any stereotypes surrounding veganism and environmentalism in rugby community.

‘It’s very hard to break down stigma,’ Bale says. ‘We wanted to show that it’s good to be friendly to animals, and to care about the environment.’

Veganism, sport and the planet

Several professional rugby players have adopted a vegan diet and discussed its benefits, including All Black TJ Perenara, Ireland international Anthony Mullally, FC St Pauli player Johanna Jahnke and Harlequins’ Jade Konkel-Roberts, who has spoken publicly about normalising veganism in the sport.

Beyond rugby, football’s Forest Green Rovers, who have been named ‘greenest football club in the world’, have long served all-vegan food to both players and fans at matches. Dale Vince, the club’s owner and chairman, has said that it’s now widely recognised that vegan diets can improve athlete performance and reduce injury.

Research from Harvard Medical School has found evidence that plant-based diets have a range of health benefits, including a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Critically, plant-based diets are also good for the environment. Recent research showed that vegan diets resulted in 75% less climate-heating emissions, water pollution and land use, compared to meat-based diets.

It’s this combination of benefits for athlete health and for the environment that Green Gazelles want to promote as part of the growing movement towards plant-based diets in sport.

Reducing their own impact

While normalising veganism and bringing people together are central to Green Gazelles’ mission, Bale and the team are also clear about reducing their own impact on the environment.

‘I look at every fixture we go to, and every decision we make—what pitch we play on, the kit we use, the food we eat, where we meet,’ says Bale. ‘We try to make everything public transport accessible, and in terms of everything we eat and use during training camps and tournaments, I try my hardest to make sure it’s made of sustainable materials.’

The team’s kit is currently supplied by Tsunami, a B-Corp certified kit manufacturer who create kit from recycled plastic.

The team re-use the kit to the end of its lifecycle, and then donate and recycle it through rugby charities.

‘Everything we look at we try and make sure it’s one-off, reusable, and earth friendly,’ says Bale.

Community and education

Community and partnerships are also central to the club’s mission and are critical for their longer-term strategy of initiating conversations and helping fans and athletes to engage with plant-based, environmental lifestyles.

The club have developed partnerships with vegan businesses and environmental charities, including the World Forest Organisation, who they have supported through tree-planting initiatives.

The team are open to engaging with everyone and anyone who’s interested in the connections between sport and veganism.

‘We’ve had so many approaches from people who have questions—they might not be vegan, but they’ll ask us how we get our nutrition, what our next project is, or how they can get involved,’ says Bale.

Bale and the team will often connect people with their nutritionist who can answer any questions or find one of their players to be a mentor.

‘What we’re trying to do as Green Gazelles Rugby Club is to activate conversations within the rugby world, and across sport,’ says Bale.

Reception from the sport industry and beyond has been overwhelmingly positive. The team have been featured on the BBC and Vice, and Bale says the response is almost always supportive.

The club has also engaged with professional players including Jamie Farndale, former Scotland 7s captain and Scottish Rugby’s Sustainability Ambassador, who has coached during one of the team’s tournaments.

Plans for the future

In future, Bale hopes that Green Gazelles can expand its education programme, including developing a schools programme that uses sport as a platform to educate young people about the environment.

The team also have plans for a Big Green Clash next summer, when the club will challenge a professional London club to a match at a major stadium and raise funds and awareness for environmental causes.

‘We want to play a big fixture annually which will help tackle climate change and really put the spotlight on how rugby can shift towards a greener future,’ says Bale.

Green Gazelles are a perfect example of how teams can use the specific power of sport to raise questions and encourage fans to engage on topics they might not have thought about before.

When it comes to rugby, challenging long-held assumptions and stereotypes has proved to be a powerful tool.

‘We’re doing it in a positive way—we’re not preachy, we’re not telling people ‘You must do it’, we’re just trying to do it,’ says Bale. ‘If we do it, others might look and think, maybe we can integrate some of those things into our club. We really want to support the sporting world as much as possible.’

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    Read moreBethany White