Ireland’s preparations for the RBS 6 Nations endured a setback in Cork last night as the second string Wolfhounds suffered a Saxon beating in a disjointed A international.
National head coach Joe Schmidt can at least be satisfied that key players, including Sean O’Brien and props Jack McGrath and Mike Ross, gained valuable game time ahead of next Saturday’s championship opener in Italy but there will be plenty for the New Zealander to ponder as he considers how to whittle down his extended squad to 31 players over the weekend.
Outscored two tries to nil by the English, the Wolfhounds failed to take advantage of a dominant scrum in the first 55 minutes and their defeat was compounded by a rib injury to Fergus McFadden.
Luke Fitzgerald’s hopes of playing his way into a winning Test team were dashed yet again as the Leinster back was struck down with a stomach bug before kick-off but that provided Ulster’s Craig Gilroy with an opportunity to stake his own claim, promoted from the bench to the left wing and Munster’s Andrew Conway taking his place among the replacements.
Conway found himself pressed into action much earlier than anticipated as ill fortune struck again, McFadden’s comeback from injury brought to a halt after just 12 minutes following a bang on the ribs.
It soured a bright start from the Wolfhounds who had enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges, Iain Henderson giving Bath’s Sam Burgess, England’s latest convert from the League code, a shuddering introduction to representative rugby union inside the first two minutes and earning a penalty as the former South Sydney Rabbitoh failed to release the ball in timely fashion.
Burgess was not the only one needing valuable game time with the Wolfhounds giving much-needed starts to the fit-again Keith Earls, Henderson and Sean O’Brien and the rusty props Jack McGrath and Mike Ross, as well as Ian Madigan, given his first outing at fly-half in close to a month, his opportunities limited at Leinster with coach Matt O’Connor preferring Jimmy Gopperth at No.10.
Both Earls and O’Brien made early impacts, the latter earning another penalty after carrying over halfway and drawing a high tackle, captain Felix Jones instructing Madigan to kick for the corner, the out-half obliging only for a poor lineout throw from hooker Richardt Strauss to hand the initiative back to the visitors.
The Saxons were equally wasteful, a strong front row put under pressure from the all-Leinster, all-Test Irish front row, which earned a free kick from Welsh referee Neil Hennessy.
McFadden’s early exit burst the bubble a little and the English then lost lock James Gaskell on the quarter hour. However, despite continued pressure from the Irish scrummagers, it was the Saxons who gradually found some fluency in open play, their runners making inroads and gradually pushing the men in green onto the back foot.
It was hooker Rob Webber who carried into the Irish 22 as the English gathered momentum which would lead to the opening score, a try from fly-half Henry Slade, taking a pass inside from centre Elliott Daly. Slade would miss the conversion but added three points soon after instead to move his side into an 8-0 lead on 26 minutes.
Ireland only opened their account six minutes before the interval, Madigan converting his first shot at goal after Chris Ashton was guilty of crossing.
Yet Irish indiscipline allowed England to extend their lead before the break, despite Daly missing a long-range effort as Slade closed the half with a second bite after the Wolfhounds strayed offside, the infraction exacerbated by Mike McCarthy injuring himself making a charge at Dave Ewers straight after.
The lock would not reappear as Ireland started the second half trailing 11-3 and further substitutions from both sides made the closing period a disjointed affair.
The only constant was the Wolfhounds enjoyment at scrum time, two more penalties following on from the first-half dominance, at least until McGrath took his bow on 58 minutes and the Saxons finally gained a foothold.
By then Madigan had closed the gap to 11-9 thanks to two penalties but instead of gathering momentum, the Wolfhounds scrum began to creak, Michael Bent, McGrath’s replacement on the loosehead side, attracting the attention of the referee.
Isaac Boss’s introduction for Kieran Marmion at scrum-half, though, had the reverse effect, his added incisiveness in the last 20 minutes sending Ireland back onto the front foot and into the opposition 22, only for a knock-on in front of the posts to undermine the effort.
Ashton launched a huge kick and his electric chase put Conway in two minds inside his own 22, resulting in an English lineout five metres out.
The Saxons got closer than that again when the Wolfhounds pack was caught napping at a lineout on their 22, the visiting pack turning the screw with their maul and going through the phases before replacement wing Christian Wade delivered the sucker punch with a try in the right corner, Slade adding to the final misery with a conversion to end the game and an unsatisfactory night for the Irish.
F Jones – captain (Gilroy, 78); F McFadden (A Conway, 12), K Earls, G D’Arcy, C Gilroy (N Reid, 73); I Madigan, K Marmion (I Boss, 55); J McGrath (M Bent, 58), R Strauss (R Herring, 51), M Ross (N White, 53); I Henderson, M McCarthy (R Diack, 40); D Ryan, S O’Brien (E McKeon, 51), J Conan.
C Pennell; C Ashton, E Daly, S Burgess (O Devoto, 73), M Yarde (C Wade, 50); H Slade, L Dickson – captain (J Simpson, 62); M Mullan (A Waller, 50), R Webber (L Cowan Dickie, 50), H Thomas (J Cooper-Woolley, 73); M Garvey (C Fearns, 73), J Gaskell (M Itoje, 15); D Ewers, M Kvesic, T Waldrom.
Neil Hennessy (Wales)