O'Connor has pride in Irish shirt

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The Independent Online

The Ireland captain Terry O'Connor has insisted his squad are not mercenaries as they seek to set up a rugby league World Cup quarter-final tie with England.

The Ireland captain Terry O'Connor has insisted his squad are not mercenaries as they seek to set up a rugby league World Cup quarter-final tie with England.

O'Connor is one of 13 players in the 23-strong party who was born in England, with the rest made up of eight Australians and just two hailing from Ireland. The Irish could field three players who have previously appeared for England in the likely clash at Headingley on 11 November if they repel the New Zealand Maori challenge tomorrow.

But O'Connor, whose team are two points clear in Group Four, said the foreign-born players were committed to the Irish cause. "No-one can say we are just a bunch of Englishmen or Aussies because we are all very proud of our Irish heritage and want to play for Ireland," said the Liverpool-born player. "We have all turned our backs on England or Australia and we want to give the Irish something to be proud of. No-one can question our allegiance."

O'Connor, who captained his side to victory over Scotland at Dublin's Tolka Park on Wednesday night, added: "My grandparents were Irish and I am proud that they were here to watch me lead an Irish side out. We all get a buzz out of singing the national anthem. It sent shivers down our backs.

"We also sung it at the end of the game. There is a great atmosphere in the squad - there are no big players." The Wigan stalwart also paid tribute to the support they have received in their two games so far as they attempt to increase the popularity of the game in Ireland.

Ryan Sheridan and Michael Withers scored tries in the impressive 18-6 defeat of Scotland, while the Hull full-back Steve Prescott kicked 10 points. The game, which left the Irish as the only unbeaten team in their group, was watched by just over 1,700 spectators, around 3,200 having attended last weekend's victory over Samoa at Belfast's Windsor Park.

"People have been saying the crowds have been a let down but I'd say it has all been very positive so far," said the 28-year-old, who has also played seven times for Great Britain. "Over 3,000 paid to watch a game they did not really understand in Belfast and people have again turned out here.

"It does not matter if you are playing in front of 50,000 in a Grand Final or in front of a few thousand, what counts is the atmosphere. That has been really good so far and the players appreciate the crowds coming out to support us.

"There is lots of talent in Ireland and we want to get people interested in the sport. I personally believe it is the best sport in the world. It's got everything - speed and tough, ugly men. It's just a good all-round game.

"I am sure that if there was a Super League franchise established in Belfast or Dublin then people would take it to their hearts."

Ireland could afford to lose to the Maori side tomorrow and still win the group because of a massive superiority in their points difference, but they are determined to qualify with a clean sweep of victories.

"It is set up nicely," said their joint head coach, Steve O'Neill. "We have had our eye on a game against England ever since the draw was made. Headingley would be a great stadium to play at.

"We always knew it would boil down to the game against the Maoris to decide who finishes top and who finishes second. We want to beat them and finish the group off right."