Ireland’s AIB League stars earned a hard-fought 20-17 win over England Counties on Friday night, as tries from Matt Crockett and Niall O’Brien proved crucial at Donnybrook.
AIB CLUB INTERNATIONAL: Friday, February 23
IRELAND CLUB XV 20 ENGLAND COUNTIES 17, Donnybrook
Scorers: Ireland Club XV: Tries: Matt Crockett, Niall O’Brien; Cons: Andrew Thompson 2; Pens: Thompson 2
England Counties: Tries: Chris Malherbe, Mark Bedworth; Cons: Neil Hallett 2; Pen: Hallett
Trinity hooker Crockett plunged over in the seventh-minute after an excellent maul drive. Shannon’s Andrew Thompson converted and added a penalty, canceling a Neil Hallett effort, as the Irish led 10-3 at the break.
The home pack, led superbly by skipper and AIB Club man of the match David Quinlan, bossed the third quarter. On 56 minutes, Clontarf winger O’Brien blocked down an attempted clearance from Hallett to race over for his try.
Thompson took his kicking haul to ten points before England registered late tries through centres Chris Malherbe and Mark Bedworth.
With six players in the Irish pack back from last year, the Irish weathered an early storm from an expansive England side before Crockett made his breakthrough.
Out-half Thompson, making his club international debut just a few weeks short of his 33rd birthday, kicked a seventh-minute penalty touch.
Lansdowne’s Alan Maher rose highest at the subsequent lineout and a superbly-managed maul – especially considering Ireland’s first squad training session was on Wednesday – gave Crockett the opportunity to break off the back and score from three metres out.
Thompson converted and despite threatening on the counter attack, with Graham Barr and Bedworth the liveliest of the England backs, the visitors were always missing a final pass or that killer instinct.
Full-back Hallett, who missed an early chance, did nudge over a penalty for them, but with tireless lock Merle O’Connell, who has dual status with Cork Constitution and Crosshaven, starring in the first half, the Irish held them at bay.
Dungannon’s Richard McCarter was also a punchy runner from full-back and he did little wrong in defence. However when England retrieved his chip kick and ran it out of their ’22’, a breakaway score did look on for the men in white.
Somehow, when a supporting team-mate should have been on his right shoulder, English number 8 Tom Hayman’s blind pass found Glen Telford and the hard-working Dungannon centre gleefully cleared the danger.
A Thompson penalty, a minute into first half injury-time, gave the Irish a 10-3 lead for the second period.
Geoff Moylan’s men took the game by the scruff of its neck just after the break, adding ten points to their tally within sixteen minutes of the resumption.
It would have been more had Conor Hartigan’s offload not been spilled by Thompson as the English defence was stretched, wide out on the left. Thompson also missed a kickable penalty from 30 metres out, but he did make amends, firing over his second penalty soon after and converting O’Brien’s opportunist try.
The ‘Tarf wide man, who also grabbed a try in last year’s club international defeat of Scotland, showed a great attacking sense as he chased a deft kick through from Fiach O’Loughlin, blocking down Hallett’s kick for touch and lunging over for the score.
Thompson brilliantly swung the conversion over, five metres in from the right touchline, for a 20-3 buffer and the Irish emptied their bench.
But England, with the rain beginning to pelt down, then came with a grandstand finish as their passes finally began to stick.
They got over for their first try of the night on 68 minutes when some considerable forward grunt carved out a chance for South African-born centre Malherbe and he made no mistake, using his brute strength to muscle over from close range. Hallett’s conversion made it 20-10.
There was still time for Bedworth to capitalise on tired legs and spear through a midfield gap to touch down behind the posts. Hallett drop-kicked the conversion but Ireland held on for a deserved win.
IRELAND CLUB XV: Richard McCarter (Dungannon); Niall O’Brien (Clontarf), Kevin Hartigan (Garryowen), Glen Telford (Dungannon), Cronan Healy (Cork Constitution); Andrew Thompson (Shannon), Fiach O’Loughlin (Clontarf); Dan O’Connell (Galwegians), Matthew Crockett (Dublin University), Simon Shawe (Ballymena), Merle O’Connor (Cork Constitution), Alan Maher (Lansdowne), Peter Malone (Garryowen), Conor Hartigan (Buccaneers), David Quinlan (Shannon) (capt).
Replacements used: Andrew Finn (Shannon) for K Hartigan (23 mins), Kevin Corrigan (Lansdowne) for Crockett, Simon Crawford (Clontarf) for O’Connell (both 57), Stephen Nolan (Terenure College) for D O’Connell, Frank Cogan (Cork Constitution) for C Hartigan (both 63), Barry Keeshan (Dolphin) for Thompson, Mark Bruce (Buccaneers) for O’Loughlin (both 73).
ENGLAND COUNTIES: Neil Hallett (Esher & Surrey); Alastair Bressington (Stourbridge & Gloucestershire), Chris Malherbe (Wharfedale & Yorkshire), Mark Bedworth (Wharfedale & Yorkshire), Mark Sweeney (Launceston & Cornwall); Matt Leek (Esher & Surrey), Graham Barr (Esher & Middlesex); Duncan Cormack (Esher & Surrey) (capt), Liam Wordley (Henley & Staffordshire), Wayne Reed (Launceston & Devon), Richard Snowball (Darlington & Yorkshire), James Winterbottom (Henley & Middlesex), Mike Blakeburn (Esher & Surrey), Neil Spence (Bradford & Bingley & Yorkshire), Tom Hayman (Westcombe Park & Notts, Lincs, Derby).
Replacements used: James Tideswell (Stourbridge & North Midlands) for Reed, Dave Allen (Blackheath & Kent) for Spence (both 59 mins), Bevon Armitage (Esher) for Sweeney (62), Tom Doran (Esher & Surrey) for Wordley (67), Tristan Roberts (Cinderford & Kent) for Leek (77), Craig Aikman (Halifax & Lancashire) for Barr (79), Matt Owen (Manchester & Cheshire) for Hayman (80+2).
IrishRugby.ie man of the match: Peter Malone (Ireland)
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)