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Tyrone Howe: Old-timers roll back the years for great cause

The recent neck injury to the Scotland winger, Thom Evans, was a stark reminder of the risks that players take, every time they set foot on the field.

But like many such injuries his was more an accident than the inevitable consequence of muscular athletes coming together in bone-juddering collisions.

Therefore, while it is right that we bask in the glory of Ireland’s great victory over England last Saturday afternoon, I feel obliged to point out that one other fixture last weekend, England Legends v Ireland Legends, ran it close in terms of entertainment and drama.

Featuring names such as Jason Leonard, Jason Robinson, Martin Corry, Dan Luger, Matt Perry, Shane Byrne, Niall Hogan, Reggie Corrigan, Mick Galway, and Ulster’s Jonny Bell, Andy Ward, Paddy Johns amongst others, these finely-tuned athletes of yesteryear chose to go into battle once more, but this time all in the name of charity.

It was an incredible achievement for all involved that a crowd of over 12,000 turned up at Harlequins’ stadium, The Stoop, to support this event.

Above all, it is testament to two remarkable young men, who were brought together through rugby adversity, and whose stories are both moving and inspirational.

When they were both in their early twenties Stuart Mangan and Matt Hampson suffered catastrophic injuries through rugby playing and training respectively.

Both were left paralysed from the neck down, unable to breathe without the aid of a ventilator and required round-the-clock carers. It is every player’s and parent’s nightmare.

Both individuals have won the admiration of rugby fans everywhere in the way that they reacted to these injuries.

Matt, the former England U21 prop, suffered his injury in March 2005. Since then he has become an Ambassador for the Rugby Players’ Association Benevolent Fund, writes a regular column for his local paper, coaches his local school and has just acquired his grade one coaching badge.

He has also moved into his own specifically designed home several hundred yards from his parents.

Stuart suffered the same injury in April 2008 and this brought the two young men together. They became firm friends and encouraged each other with their ambitious plans for the future. It was against this backdrop that the idea of an England/Ireland Legends game was spawned.

It is particularly poignant that, during the latter planning stages, Stuart sadly and unexpectedly passed away in August last year. With the wheels already in motion, his family concluded with the same positive spirit that the game should go ahead in his memory. Thus, the inaugural match was played in his honour and for the Stuart Mangan Memorial Cup.

The game itself was a terrific affair. Unlike their current international counterparts, all the veteran players stayed in the same hotel, had lunch together before the match and travelled to the game in the same bus.

This did not affect the full-blooded nature of the contest. This was no touch rugby, non-tackling spectacle; instead it was a highly competitive game of rugby, laced with moments of quality and entertainment.

Star of the show was Jason Robinson (below) who lit up the crowd in the opening minutes with a brilliant individual try which showed all of his blistering acceleration and dazzling footwork.

Based on what I saw over 80 minutes, if I was Martin Johnson, I would be doing whatever it takes to get Robinson out of retirement for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. He was simply sensational and would still walk into most teams.

Despite the early setback, Ireland came back with surprising vigour and established a 17-5 lead with tries from ex-flanker David Corkery and a brace from Ireland wing, Justin Bishop. Could an Ireland victory be on the cards?

But England came out strongly after halftime and launched the expected rearguard action. Ireland defended with purpose, organisation and as much desire had they been playing at Twickenham the next day.

A second try came from Robinson, another from ex-Northampton Saint, Matt Allen, and the English pack were held up twice over the line — could Ireland hold on?

With time up and an Irish scrum on the halfway line, all that was needed was for the ball to be put out.

Ex-Ireland captain, Niall Hogan, broke from the back of the scrum, stumbled, regained his balance, kicked the ball, but rather than

straight into touch, he sliced it backwards (almost impossible to do!) and it ended up being the perfect crossfield kick for the man nicknamed Billy Whizz speeding down the wing.

Somehow, the Irish defence managed to bundle Jason Robinson into touch, and Tony Spreadbury blew his whistle to the relief of Irish players and supporters alike — 17-15 and another famous Irish victory.

You could see from the body language that Martin Corry’s men were hugely disappointed and are already looking forward to the opportunity in a year’s time to restore their pride on Irish soil.

Nonetheless, while battered bodies littered the pitch there were smiles on all the faces. It was a superb evening and over £150,000 was raised for the Matt Hampson Trust, the IRFU Charitable Trust and the Paralysed Rugby Players’ Fund.

Stuart Mangan and Matt Hampson are shining examples of courage, in the face of adversity and their indomitable spirit has inspired all who have come across them.

Tragic as these deaths and injuries are, they have also served to highlight the great spirit of the rugby family. The way that some of rugby’s biggest names rallied around to support Stuart and Matt served as a strong reminder that rugby is still a game with a huge heart.

Sky Sports will be showing brief highlights of the game in this week’s edition of The Rugby Club.

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