Birkett the unknown quantity

Unheralded lock is hidden in a galactic line-up but today his line-out work will hold the key
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The Independent Online

Spot the odd man out: Lawrence Dallaglio, Robert Howley, Richard Birkett, Josh Lewsey, Joe Worsley. The answer, of course, is young Birkett as all the others are cap carrying members of the international club. In the Who's Who of Wasps, Birkett is the player wearing a name tag.

''I am very small fish in a very big pool,'' he said, although at 6ft 4in and almost 17st he is not exactly in the sardine class. He is also being too modest. Very few members of the current squad - they include five of England's World Cup winners - have been with the club as long as Birkett, who joined seven years ago as a 17-year-old, and nor have they played as integral a role in the emergence of Wasps as champions of England.

Today they are engaged in what they describe as the biggest game in the club's history, the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster at Lansdowne Road. "I'm really, really excited,'' Birkett said. "There's a buzz throughout the whole squad because we know this is the biggest challenge we've ever faced.'' It is the same on a personal level.

As Wasps principal line-out jumper Birkett, who partners the 6ft 9in and 19st Simon Shaw, will make the calls against Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, two of the best there are. With a combined height of 13ft and weight of 33st, the Irish international pair have raised the apostrophe to new heights.

''Everybody is aware of what Ireland did to England in the line-out at Twickenham in the Six Nations,'' Birkett said. "It's not every day you come up against two of the finest in the world and we've got to make sure we don't give them any easy ball. We'll try and work them very hard in the loose so at line-out time they are not as fresh.''

This potentially epic match marks the return to Dublin of Warren Gatland, the New Zealander who found gainful employment as Wasps' director of rugby after abruptly losing the coaching job with Ireland. No sooner was Gatland celebrating an Irish victory over England at Lansdowne Road than he was out of the loop. "That was two and a half years ago,'' Gatland said. "I have no hang ups about going back to Dublin. Munster have a fantastic record in the competition and I have been trying to work out for six years what makes them so special as a team. You can't buy what they have but we also have the players to respond to the big occasion. I'm relishing it.''

On the evidence of their destruction of Perpignan in France and Gloucester at home, Wasps, who completed a league and Parker Pen Challenge Cup double last season, have the strongest pack in the Zurich Premiership and Birkett is their least celebrated member. "When I look around me it can be quite daunting at times, but I've learned a lot.''

His was not a classic rugby background. Born in Roehampton he went to Sheen School and was introduced to rugby through the mini sections at Rosslyn Park and Richmond. "When I was 13 I started to play basketball and it became my passion.'' He played for Crystal Palace in the national league and represented the under 19 side when he was 15. "Both basketball and rugby were on Sundays so when I was 17 I had to choose.''

It would be fair to say he did not put heart and soul into his exams at Kingston College and when he had to re-sit his A levels he was fortunate to spend a year at Millfield, which in rugby terms was streets ahead of anything he had experienced. "At Sheen we had one pitch. At Millfield there were about 30 acres of fields and I played every day. I switched from No 8 to the second row and although I never particularly liked getting my ears bashed I played every game.''

Birkett was selected for the England Under-18 squad but the presence of Steve Borthwick and Andrew Sheridan meant he spent most of his time on the bench. He faced another dilemma when Nigel Melville, then the Wasps' coach, offered him apprenticeship terms. "Richmond were paying big bucks at the time but I thought Wasps, who had an established team, were the better option.'' Given Richmond's demise it was a smart move. Birkett graduated to England Under-21 and his next goal is to reach A level with the Red Roses. A bad knee injury in the first game in 2001 set him back.

He took a degree in film and media studies in London. "I did cinema, screenwriting and media analysis and I was able to watch films as part of my homework.'' A video that does not feature in his library is of the Heineken Cup match between Wasps and Stade Français at Loftus Road where he made a name for himself as Own Goal Birkett. He was lifted towards the crossbar to stymie a penalty kick from Diego Dominguez but although he got his hands to the ball it went over the bar. "That was a shocker. I took some stick but I didn't nudge the ball over the bar as most people assumed. It simply went through my hands. Nobody seems to try that tactic any more.''

Last season Birkett played in every Wasps game but during this campaign a doctor ordered him to take two months rest. In the process of scoring a try against London Irish he took a knee in the kidneys. "I was peeing blood for a week but I've come back a lot fresher.''

A chartered jumbo jet will leave Heathrow this morning full of Wasps' supporters. They could do with a fleet of them. Of the 49,000 capacity at Lansdowne Road only 4,000 seats will be occupied by those wearing black and gold. It is not what you would describe as a neutral venue but then, as Birkett says, if Wasps reach the final Twickenham awaits.