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Quinlan enjoyed European success with Munster

Irish duo itching to help Twickenham cause

Pat McLoughlin @pjmcloughlin

A northern hemisphere select side faces their southern counterparts at Twickenham on Saturday in a charity game which is sure to whet the appetite ahead of a packed 2012 calendar and, more importantly, raise money for Help for Heroes.

The inaugural clash in September 2008 saw a Help for Heroes XV, captained by England World Cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio, defeat an International XV skippered by Welsh legend Scott Gibbs 29-10 in an entertaining south-west London encounter.

The game was attended by over 52,000 and helped raise £1.4m of the £105m that the charity has raised since launch in October 2007 to aid the armed forces that put their lives on the line for us.

This time around the focus has switched to a hemisphere one with service men, up-and-coming stars and past internationals joining forces to cheer the crowd and boost the charity’s bottom line.

Former Wallabies wing Joe Roff, a 1999 World Cup winner, and recently retired flanker Phil Waugh will be joined by decorated All Blacks Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens in the southern hemisphere team alongside South African enforcer AJ Venter.

They have the bonus of being managed by antipodean giants Michael Lynagh and Sean Fitzpatrick with Dallaglio combining with Jason Leonard and former Wales flyer Ieuan Evans to guide the northern team.

Add in coaching heavyweights like Nick Mallett and Wayne Smith for the southern squad, together with John Kirwan and Dean Ryan for the northern outfit, and there is no excuse for lacking inspiration for those taking to the field for those in need.

Dallaglio can count on the likes of former England team-mates Ben Cohen, Will Greenwood and Danny Grewcock, together with rugby league legend Sean Long and former France stalwart Serge Betsen looking to get in the faces of the southern side.

Cohen revealed, “I can’t wait to step out onto the Twickenham pitch one more time. I have some amazing memories of playing there and this is surely going to be another one.

“To be part of the Heroes Rugby Challenge and the Northern Hemisphere team is a real privilege; with so many big names playing it is going to be a great occasion for a very worthwhile cause.”

Two Irishmen are also itching to play at Twickenham with one, in particular, Alan Quinlan set to make his international stadium bow unlike Malcolm O’Kelly who knows all about the cauldron of noise that Twickenham can be.

Quinlan, though capped 27 times for Ireland at Test level, never played for his country at England’s ground.

He missed out on memorable victories there as Irish rugby dragged itself out of the international doldrums in 2004 against the then world champions before also missing out on the dramatic 28-24 2006 Test victory, for a second Triple Crown in three years, through injury.

The flanker was an integral part of Munster’s successes in the modern era and at the forefront of their emergence as the eminent club team in Europe. Celtic League, Celtic Cup and Magners League winners’ medals were collected as well as two Heineken Cup triumphs in 2006 and 2008.

The County Tipperary back row is barely six months into his retirement from professional rugby and his earliest memory of the old stadium was watching Munster being edged out 9-8 by Northampton in the 2000 Heineken Cup final from the replacements’ bench.

He said, “I’m looking forward to it. It’s a very good cause and I’m pleased I can do something to support the event. I’ve been having a bit of fun since retiring from playing, doing a bit of media work with ITV at the World Cup and now with Sky Sports.

“I just needed the break from playing and I like the fact I’m not preparing for a game every weekend. I can relax and just enjoy and talk about the rugby in front of me. It’s less pressure. When I was playing, it was much more difficult, planning for the game and preparing. There was little time to relax.”

Despite making over 210 appearances for Munster, after his provincial debut as a 22-year-old in November 1996, he struggled at various times with serious injury.

He added, “I never played at Twickenham for Ireland but I did play once for Munster against Harlequins. (In January 2005, a record Heineken Cup crowd at the time of 33,883 saw the Irish province beat Quins 18-10 in a pool match).

“It was unbelievable to actually play there finally, at that great old stadium, before its redevelopment. There was a wonderful atmosphere and aura to the place. It is, after all, the home of English rugby.

“It will be strange to go back there now I’ve finished playing professionally. But I’m certain it’s going to be a great occasion for everyone involved and will raise a lot of money for a really worthwhile cause.”

Quinlan’s former international colleague O’Kelly retired from playing professionally almost a year before him. He too, another to straddle the amateur and professional years, was another who required time away from the relentless rigours of playing the game for a living.

After 92 Ireland caps, still a record for an Ireland second row, Kelly has taken a job in the city of Dublin and is enjoying the change of lifestyle.

“Of course I’m looking forward to going back and playing in the game,” the 37-year-old declared. “It’ll be great to go back to Twickenham. I have some really good memories of playing there.

“The Six Nations victories over England in 2004 and 2006, especially, were special. Shane Horgan’s try stays long in the memory but, of course, we were on the end of a few record lashings by the home side as well.

“It wasn’t all happy memories but you can’t beat the tradition of the place. Driving up to the ground was always memorable. You’d see the fans congregating outside, the Range Rovers parked in the car park with people enjoying their picnics from the back of them.

“Now it’s a state of the art venue and a place to enjoy playing rugby though, purely for atmosphere, the place I enjoyed playing at most was the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It’s in the beating heart of a vibrant city.

“We didn’t have a lot of success there with Ireland, to be honest, but the noise would hit you like a train when you went running out onto the playing surface.

“Croke Park is another place I had a great affinity for. Beating England there in the first match was incredible and the win with Leinster over Munster in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final was unforgettable. But Twickenham, for all its history, is a really great place to play at.

“Since retiring I’ve enjoyed taking a total break from the game. I’ve only played a little socially and now I’m back in the real world with a proper job (O’Kelly is a qualified engineer and has a Masters in mathematics). I don’t get the time I used to devote to the game. It should be fun.”

It’s not often professional sportsmen and women get to play freely for a good cause in this day and age, therefore there should really only be one place to be on Saturday and that is Twickenham amongst the great, good and worthy.

Tickets are still available now from Ticketmaster. If you’re looking to make a group booking for more than 8 people please visit the RFU e-ticketing site. For more information please visit www.heroesrugby.org.uk

If you enjoyed this, then check out Max Benson’s piece on British sporting success “Irresistible Force”

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