Over the course of two press conferences this week, a lot became clear about why so many coaches and players felt the need to take part in the Heroes Rugby Challenge this Saturday at Twickenham. No testimony was more striking than speaking to Wayne Smith though last night at Downing Street. The Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere squads, who have spent the entire week together at media events with the coaches even staying in the same hotel, were attending a reception with the Prime Minister. This unity between squads and oppositions highlights how everyone taking part is there for the same cause; to generate as much cash and awareness as possible for the charity.
When the microphone turned to Smith for his thoughts on the experience, the happiness at being involved in such an occasion was clearly visible across his face. “It’s been one of the experiences of my life. I was asked to come over probably six or seven months ago, before the World Cup, and I honestly thought at the time that the last thing I want to be doing after the World Cup is another coaching stint, even if it’s just for a week. But then they sent the information about the cause and this week, and I’m so pleased I came. You’ve got guys here who aren’t doing it for money, they’re all professional sportsmen giving up their time. It’s all about passion.”
That passion that Smith spoke about has been needed this week, during a time when despite their intent to not discuss coaching matters with England, John Kirwan, Nick Mallett, Dean Ryan and Smith have all had to relent and sacrifice their agreed silence in order to promote the match as much as possible with the written press. Whilst the cynic may argue that it’s rather convenient that these four coaches are at Twickenham when the RFU is searching for a new Head Coach, the coincidence purely lies in the fact that they are amongst some of the best in the world.
Ryan and Kirwan in particular this week have spoken about their personal connections to the Help For Heroes charity in a compelling and honest way. Former Gloucester coach Ryan spent 7 years serving with the Corp of Royal Engineers, so his connection with the British servicemen and women runs deep, with the charity close to his heart.
On the other side, Kirwan famously suffered from depression and went on to write the book “All Blacks Don’t Cry”, as well as receiving an MBE for his charity work to help promote and fight the disease. The personal connections of Ryan and Kirwan bring you back to the passion that Smith mentioned. On Saturday, it will be there in abundance.
Of course what makes Saturday even more special, is the quality of the players on show. A brilliant mixture of retired World Cup winners in Will Greenwood, to rising stars such as Anthony Watson and Sias Ebersohn, to Ceri Cummings from the Army and Dave Pascoe from the Royal Navy. Even behind the scenes the “who’s who” of rugby continues, with Jason Leonard, Ieuan Evans, Lawrence Dallaglio, Sean Fitzpatrick and Michael Lynagh all involved with managing the two teams.
For the more elderly participants, it will be a long afternoon. Serge Betsen revealed that despite training at Wasps, he had no idea how long he’d last on the pitch, whilst Duncan Bell stated that lifting the recently retired Danny Grewcock in the lineout had not gone entirely smoothly. On the other end of the scale, the initial reaction from Watson to being called up, whose last run out at Twickenham was for his school Whitgift in the Daily Mail Schools Cup, was disbelief. He described playing with someone who he looked up to in Greenwood as “a massive honour”. It is those kind of details that give a match such as Saturday’s a certain charm.
All in all, Saturday should be a wonderful occasion. Visiting Tedworth House this week, the centre run by Help For Heroes, will have strengthened everyone’s desire to make the game a huge success. There will no doubt be plenty of emotion running around the ground, as this great cause backed by the Prime Minister takes centre stage. At a time when Twickenham over the last few weeks has resembled a dark haven of deception and bad blood, from kick off it will all be forgotten.
by Ben Coles
Heroes Rugby Challenge supported by J.P. Morgan, Saturday 3rd December 2011 at Twickenham Stadium, kicks off at 1630. Adult tickets are 2-for-1 and the full cost of the ticket goes to Help For Heroes. Tickets available by www.ticketmaster.co.uk / 0844 847 2492