Watching rugby player Sacha Harding stream down a green field fighting off player after player to keep the ball'a vision of speed, strength, and unbridled athleticism'it's easy to see why straight women and gay men (and likely a few folks in between) have gone gaga for this British sensation. Harding is a flanker on England's Bedford Blues rugby team, in a sport that's a national treasure in the U.K. (and which can be best described to uninitiated Americans as football without the helmets). But it's Harding's off-the-court activities that have caused the most stir.
Harding recently bared all, posing for the cover of Britain's Gay Times magazine as part of a fund-raiser for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. He was one of 54 men who went full monty for the magazine's annual Naked Issue, and his photo was auctioned off to raise even more money for the charity. The straight athlete (he says his girlfriend loved the images) didn't think twice about posing nude for a gay magazine. 'I'm comfortable with my sexuality and felt confident that what I did would in some way help the cause,' he says.
That's because HIV and AIDS aren't gay issues, he adds, but a global crisis that belongs to all of us. 'AIDS is a huge issue and one that can't be ignored,' he says. 'I was asked to help and I couldn't say no.' And while he took some ribbing from his fellow teammates for dropping trou, he says, 'Of course there was a bit of banter. On the whole, the team and friends were all very supportive.'
In fact, his teammates have been supportive all year as Harding's profile in Europe and the U.S. has risen. Last year the men's grooming-products firm Bluebeards Revenge did a search for the world's manliest man. It was done after a composite of the ideal masculine man was created, which combined George Clooney's hair, Gerard Butler's eyes, Brad Pitt's nose, Jason Statham's mouth, and Daniel Craig's body. Harding, who received 160,000 votes, was the hands-down winner.
Does this sex symbol ever stare in the mirror and think, Hell yeah, I'm hotter than Brad Pitt? Not so much. 'I just laugh every time people bring up [my sex appeal]. It's very flattering to be thought of in that way,' says Harding, who was raised in Welwyn, a village of 3,250 people in southeastern England. 'But I don't take it too seriously.'
What he does take seriously is health. His rugby team supports Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a ladies' day home match, where team members wear a pink strip on their jerseys. At the end of the game all the players' shirts are auctioned off to benefit the organization Breast Cancer Care. Harding is also an ambassador for Movember, a charity movement in which men grow facial hair to raise money and awareness for men's health issues, such as prostate and testicular cancer. 'I have been involved with Movember pretty much since the beginning,' the athlete says. 'It's a charity that is close to my heart, and I feel personally responsible to help promote all the amazing work the charity is doing to help change the course of men's health. Being in such a male environment all the time, I understand the taboo side of things and believe that by getting involved we can change this.'
Getting men to focus on their own health care needs can be tough, he admits. There's a myth that manly men don't need any help. 'Definitely, as men we are stupid about our health. I guess it's a macho thing.'
But as a 29-year-old professional athlete, Harding does work to keep himself in top form. He's been playing rugby since he was 6 years old, and professionally with the Bedford Blues since he was 17. Last year he received what's called a 'testimonial' (recognition of a decade of service to the team). He is only the second person in the 124-year history of the club to achieve this. 'I was very honored and humbled by the amazing support I received,' he says.
Harding has been on the Blues longer than any other player, and retirement isn't in his sights yet. 'You can play for as long as your body can take it,' he says. 'I want to play for hopefully another six to eight years.'
With his modeling work and a new underwear line, he's also building a successful career outside of rugby. But advocating for causes he believes in remains a priority. Some activists estimate that 400 new HIV infections occur in the world during the length of an average 80-
minute rugby match. Harding says athletes and fans all have a part in combating that. 'Understand and research the disease more,' he urges everyone. 'Also try and do something for a charity'try to make a difference.'