Ireland Wolfhounds 10 England Saxons 14
England Saxons erased a 10-point deficit in the second half as they came out on top at the Sportsground.
Kevin McLaughlin muscled over for a 10th minute try, with Paddy Jackson’s right boot ensuring a 10-0 half-time lead for the Ireland Wolfhounds.
George Ford’s 50th-minute penalty got the Saxons off the mark, and the 19-year-old fly-half went on to guide the visitors home backed by a stiffening wind.
Ford and man-of-the-match Graham Kitchener sparked the break that eventually led to Will Fraser’s unconverted try in the right corner.
The win was wrapped by a late penalty from Ford – his third of the match – with the Wolfhounds pinned back out of scoring range.
Both teams contained a smattering of senior-capped players with some harbouring hopes of earning Six Nations call-ups.
The fit-again Luke Fitzgerald, enjoying his first run-out in green since neck surgery last summer, boosted his chances with a workmanlike display.
Leicester’s Jordan Crane skippered a Saxons side with an average age of less than 24 and they came under immediate pressure from their more experienced opponents.
Connacht’s own Robbie Henshaw and David McSharry enjoyed early carries, but the wind-backed Jackson pulled a third minute penalty wide.
Although Ford probed with a couple of accurate kicks, the Wolfhounds maintained their stranglehold of possession and the breakthrough duly came.
A Devin Toner-won lineout in the English 22 saw Mike Sherry maul up close to the line, and a well-timed pick and go saw flanker McLaughlin drive over from close range.
Jackson converted from the right and the Saxons, using their powerful scrum, did well to avoid leaking further points during a one-sided opening quarter.
Lewis Stevenson was hauled down near the posts following a well-executed move off a lineout, while hooker Sherry also showed his ball-carrying ability.
The Saxons won a couple of penalties to get into scoring range. However, Ford’s first attempt on goal – a meaty 41-metre penalty in the 27th minute – bounced back off the right hand post.
With Crane and Jordan Turner-Hall wielding more influence and Ford providing direction from stand-off, the visitors started to find some rhythm.
Jackson put 10 points between the sides with a well-struck penalty, awarded for a stray elbow on his half-back partner Paul Marshall. Saxons hooker Joe Gray was fortunate that the match officials failed to spot the exact offender.
But Gray was part of a dominant English scrum. They had the Wolfhounds under all sorts of pressure in the set piece approaching half-time, with Nick Wood especially effective at loosehead.
They were close to forcing a penalty try, but somehow the Irish survived and it was no surprise to see the Saxons forwards resume in control.
Jon Callard’s men gleaned the early momentum in the second half, building ominously from a Kitchener-won lineout.
They had to settle for three points from Ford after Michael Bent infringed at a scrum. Importantly, the teenager’s tactical kicking also kept the Saxons in control of territory.
The Wolfhounds’ defensive workload was taking it toll and after James Coughlan came in at the side of a ruck, Ford rifled over his second successful penalty for 10-6.
Iain Henderson almost made an immediate impact off the Irish bench. The big Ulsterman was pinged for a double movement as he stretched for the try-line, following up on a midfield break from Darren Cave.
The Saxons soon carved open the Irish defence with that Ford-inspired attack. A spell of patient build-up play was then rewarded with Fraser’s 67th-minute effort out wide.
The Saracens flanker did superbly well to ground the ball despite being tackled by Fitzgerald. Ford sent his touchline conversion attempt wide.
A couple of crooked lineouts left the Wolfhounds frustrated and Ford, with the breeze behind him, made the game safe with an assured 75th-minute kick from near halfway.