It was a night not just about fund raising for Rugby For Heroes but also an opportunity for rugby fans to visit the Stoop in Twickenham, home of the Harlequins, and have fun in a unique event in the build up to RWC 15. In amongst a cadre of 2003 Rugby World Cup winners including the likes of familiar names such as Cohen, Tindall, Robinson, Hill, Back et al was a generous smattering of renowned sportsmen and celebrities with a point to prove on the rugby field, and that was just the England XV.
Facing them was a Rest of the World (RoW) team managed by Zinzan Brooke and captained by Shane Williams, featuring greats of world rugby including Thorn, Marshall, Betsen, Byrne (Welsh and Irish versions) Kellock and Lawson. Featuring broadcasters, athletes and singers, the RoW were ready to give a full account of themselves.
On both sides were players from the Armed Forces. Asked after the game how much he enjoyed playing with the professionals and celebrities, Royal Navy’s Marsh Cormack said, “To put themselves out there for the military is exceptional.
A number of match rules were in force to safe guard the players as well as provide for an excellent spectacle. Rolling subs were permitted and the scrums were uncontested. Each team had a designated kicker in the form of Andy Cole and Robbie Savage. Perhaps most importantly the clock would not stop for each of the 40 minute halves and this was carefully watched by match referee Tony Spreadbury.
The ladies of Portsmouth Military Wives’ Choir supported by the Band of the Parachute Regiment set the right note in the build up to the game leading a rousing rendition of the National Anthem for the England team. All was in place for the main event.
So to the kick off, with Rugby League’s Man of Steel Paul Sculthorpe lofting the ball for what led to 80 minutes of superb rugby. Within 7 minutes RoW and Marsh Cormack standing at first receiver took the pass from Justin Marshall and via Gethin Jones (broadcaster) and Shane Williams the ball arrived back with Cormack running a loop with 5m to go and with pace to spare crossed the whitewash; it was then a case of you score one, I score one as the scoreboard ticked over.
The ex-pros had not forgotten their silky skills and physicality even if Ugo Monye, Paul Sculthorpe and Martin Offiah were later to tweet of painful recovery time but the celebrities were able to hold their own throughout, no one more so than Jamie Laing (Made in Chelsea) and aforementioned Jones who put on a superb display both in attack and defence for the fans.
On the half hour was potentially the pick of the tries with not 1 but 4 England capped wingers getting in on the action. Sackey, Cueto and Cohen all contributed to Tom May’s try. Following that Louis Spence, all 5ft 6in of him entered the fray. Having entertained the crowd during the warm up with his gymnastics and known more for his dancing and effervescent character he found himself with the ball on the wing before being taken into touch by a strong Shane Williams’ tackle. (Images of Spence fronting up to Williams afterward were much retweeted!) Just before half time a Rory Lawson try was taken upstairs to TMO Austin Healey; ignoring the advice and to make a point Spreadbury awarded the try with the half ending Eng 17 RoW 24.
Speaking at half time, Chairman of the Trustees of Rugby for Heroes and Director of Rugby for Hampshire, Mr Tim Allen said of the event, “It has been a superb evening with a sensational atmosphere with every penny of the ticket sales going straight to the charity. In this type of event rugby and the charity is the winner…but I still want England to win!”
The RoW were ready first as they took their half-time break pitchside and it wasn’t long before Serge Betsen picked up the ball from a ruck and had a simple run in under the posts. The tit-for-tat try scoring continued and among many highlights Dion Dublins touchline conversion was excellent. A moment of pantomime villainy occurred when former All Black Brad Thorn annihilated Jamie Laing, clearly unaccustomed to playing against a more lightweight opposition the upending tackle resulted in a yellow card for the most decorated rugby player in the world. Despite his visit to hospital later for cracked ribs Jamie tweeted that it had been the most amazing day of his life and with Richard Hill unofficially nominating him as Englands Man of the Match we tend to agree.
Following a disallowed try from Mike Tindell and with the score line separated by a penalty kick it was RoW who scored the final try with Terry Fanolua giving and receiving the ball from Daryl Gibson to put the game out of the reach of England. Full time – England 27 RoW 36.
The evening was a superb display of sportsmanship, drive and desire and the 10,461 supporters who attended the event went away with a smile on their face as the many fan-celeb selfies shared demonstrated. Some unlikely friendships were forged with Jason Robinson and Harry Judd (McFly), Dion Dublin and Brian McFadden (Westlife) and Jamie Baulch and Gaz Beadle (Geordie Shore) later tweeting each other.
Rugby For Heroes and associated partners have set the benchmark for subsequent events and all will no doubt look forward to the next instalment of Rugby Aid. Massive thanks to all those who made it possible.