Tosh Masson was nervous when he met his fellow nominees at this month's British Asian Sports Awards. "I wanted to get a photo taken with Amir Khan," he said. "Luckily, as soon as I found out I hadn't won and didn't need to make a speech, I had a couple of beers and elbowed my way in."
Compared to finding a way past Khan's minders, Masson tells his story as the only British Asian playing professional rugby union matter-of-factly. Others have given him that most voguish title in sport, the role model, though the 24-year-old Harlequins centre, from a Sikh family in south London, is beginning to see the value in it.
It took an encounter with a youthful successor in rugby to alter Masson's view. Jesse Mander is a promising teenager playing union and league with London Wasps and Harlequins RL who won the Junior Male Personality section of the awards. His father approached Masson to act as a mentor.
"With Jesse, there was a link between us which helped him," said Masson. "We have that similar experience; I've been there, done that. The crowd I hung around with at school were all Asians. It's not racist to say that people tend to be more comfortable within a culture they recognise, particularly when they're growing up."
Masson was nominated by Ikram Butt, the first British Asian to play rugby league for England and a prominent campaigner for ethnic minorities taking up mainstream sport. They both know it will take more than a couple of beers to break down long-standing cultural barriers.
British Asians (a term disliked by some but widely accepted as referring principally to descendants of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) form 6.5 per cent of the UK population. But the ratio is much higher in English urban centres, and not yet reflected in the academies or amateur clubs which underpin the professional game, though the RFU's community coaches are striving to make it accessible to all.
"The main perception of rugby among Asians would be that it is a rough game, not like cricket," said Masson. "Asians tend to be hard-working and have parents and grandparents who put great emphasis on education.
"My grandma was very proud of my brother who studied medicine. When I became a rugby player we didn't want to tell her. Now she understands and she is proud of me." He had done a year of a maths degree at London's King's College but was so keen to play for Harlequins that he joined the academy for free, commuting three hours a day from Croydon to Aldershot to train. "I was brave but not that brave. If my [Indian-born] parents had been against it, I wouldn't have done it."
He has made almost 40 first-team appearances, plus one as a substitute for England Under-21s in 2006 alongside James Haskell and Dylan Hartley.
Masson's pals outside rugby are mostly Pakistani and play five-a-side football. They got up 5,000 votes on Facebook to support him in the awards. He makes occasional visits to a temple ("I always go on New Year's Eve to set myself straight") but he does not wear the Sikh turban.
The name on his passport is Tajiv Singh Masson. So why Tosh? "I've had it since I joined Harlequins. People couldn't pronounce Tajiv." Really? Ta-jiv. Two syllables, easy enough? "It is strange to see my name as Tosh in the newspapers or on Sky TV. It's only supposed to be a nickname."
Masson cannot say rugby is entirely without racism but he has experienced nothing other than "banter" which, he says quite contentedly, is intrinsic to the sport. "In a rugby team, if you're tall, slim, fat, whatever, you will get shit for it." He had to grope mentally for a personal example. "It would be something simple like a reference to curries when you're having lunch. That's all. In my rugby life I've been rejected for England age-group teams, or academies or first-team selection, and I've never thought it was racist. I just put it down to me needing to work harder. The only hierarchy in rugby is based on how well you play. If you are a Muslim and a great player you will be looked to and respected."
But are many Muslims attracted to rugby's hard-drinking "boys will be boys" image? "That's old school," Masson replied. "I didn't drink till I was 21 but my first year at Quins was the best of my life: eating, training and playing with 14 other guys doing the same as you. Then again, a piss-up with the boys is a good way of bonding."
Masson went to Whitgift School (alma mater of Raman Subba Row) and his protégé Mander is captain of St Paul School's Under-14s First XV. These are not kids fighting their way out of a ghetto; at least, not an economic one. What is clear is that rugby is a "family" or a "culture" every bit as mysterious and impenetrable to those unfamiliar with it as a religion or race. "An Asian guy came up to me at the awards," said Masson. "He told me he was a Harlequins season ticket-holder and that his kids aged six and eight were playing rugby. That's the way rugby will change, but it will take time."Reuse content