Ireland ‘A’ added the Churchill Cup to Irish rugby’s trophy cabinet, outplaying their arch rivals England Saxons for a tremendous 49-22 victory in Sunday’s final in Colorado.
2009 CHURCHILL CUP FINAL: Sunday, June 21
IRELAND ‘A’ 49 ENGLAND SAXONS 22, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park
Scorers: Ireland ‘A’: Tries: Devin Toner, Isaac Boss, Sean Cronin, Felix Jones, Johne Murphy, John Muldoon; Cons: Jonathan Sexton 2, Fergus McFadden 3; Pens: Jonathan Sexton 3
England Saxons: Tries: Ben Woods, Tom Varndell; Pens: Stephen Myler 4
Ireland ‘A’ survived two first half sin-binnings and the soaring temperatures in Commerce City to record a very memorable win over the Saxons, who were gunning for their third Churchill Cup success in as many years.
In a performance full of precision, controlled aggression, skill and finishing power, the Neil Best-captained Irish side recovered from a slow start to put the Saxons under immense pressure and hit them for six tries.
The Ireland ‘A’ pack, with the back row unit outstanding once again, began to win the collisions as the first half progressed and tries from close range for Devin Toner and Isaac Boss saw Declan Kidney’s men set out their stall.
This was a match they were very determined to peak for, after drawing momentum from their Pool A wins over Canada and Georgia.
The fact that the Saxons stood between them and a first ever Churchill Cup threw some extra spice into the equation, with Ireland ‘A’ having lost the last three meetings between the sides.
The Irish management’s decision to rotate the squad, making seven changes to the team that overcame Georgia 40-5, paid dividends – albeit after a sticky enough start.
Stephen Myler kicked a third minute penalty to give Stuart Lancaster’s Saxons a 3-0 lead and three minutes later the same player found the target from further out for 6-0.
However, two minutes later Jonathan Sexton, making his first start of the tournament, cut the deficit to three with a penalty of his own.
With Ireland ‘A’ then settling to their task up front, a concerted spell of pressure ended with Toner taking a well-timed pass from Niall Ronan and burrowing over for the game’s first try, which Sexton converted.
Myler pulled England back to within a point with his third penalty – after Leicester team-mates Tom Varndell and Johne Murphy had tangled with the latter preventing a quickly-taken penalty.
Myler missed a more testing kick in the 22nd minute but just moments later, Ireland ‘A’ put together a fluid attack which began with a searing midfield break from the electric McFadden.
The Leinster centre made 40 metres before Ireland ‘A’ drew a penalty, Chris Henry took a quick tap and Tony Buckley kept the pacy move going with a pass through his legs and more hard yards were made before Boss spotted a gap around the fringes and sailed over unchallenged.
Sexton’s conversion pushed the lead out to 17-9 and while Myler reduced the arrears on the half-hour with his fourth penalty, Ireland ‘A’ were beginning punch holes up front.
Boss made use of quick ball to increase the tempo, with Ronan, Donnacha Ryan and skipper Best all using their strength to keep the English tacklers at bay.
There was an edge creeping into the game, however, and the forwards did take matters into their own hands, a couple of times, before referee Matt Goddard reached for his yellow card.
Both sides lost a player to the sin-bin, six minutes before the break, when Saxons prop Dan Cole walked for an initial penalty for killing the ball and Irish number 8 Henry followed up for getting involved in a skirmish with Stuart Hooper.
Henry’s indiscretion also saw an Irish penalty reversed and the Saxons cleared the danger, only for last year’s Plate final winners to snap back and set up a successful drop goal shot for Sexton.
Leinster’s Heineken Cup-winning out-half followed Henry into the sin-bin, a minute before half-time, when he was whistled up for slowing down English ball at a ruck.
Myler missed the resulting kick from distance, leaving Ireland ‘A’ with a 20-12 lead to take into the second half.
The 13 men of Ireland ‘A’ restarted the game in some style. McFadden stepped in at out-half, he did not get much purchase on his restart kick but Toner did well to retrieve it and set up ruck position.
A couple of darts forward later, Ireland ‘A’ were in the English 22 and Boss probed the blindside. Sean Cronin took the ball on and the young Connacht star thundered forward, handing off both Hooper and Varndell on an inspirational run to the line.
He was engulfed by his team-mates in celebration, after which McFadden added the extras for 27-12.
The one area of the game that was causing concern for Ireland ‘A’ was the scrum. It gave the Saxons a decent platform at times, but they were kept at arm’s length for the most part and Ireland ‘A’ had a definite stranglehold on territory.
The Saxons showed their intent when they turned down a kickable penalty and after a quick switch from left to right, flanker Ben Woods piled over in the corner despite the best efforts from Johne Murphy.
Myler missed the conversion and Niall O’Connor, who came on temporarily for Henry, also failed to convert a long range. The Ulsterman was desperately unfortunate as his well-struck kick bounced back off the left upright.
Still, Ireland ‘A’ really had the bit between their teeth and they were now running at the Saxons at will, with their decision-making, ability to play at pace and maintain possession in contact putting them on a different level to their opponents.
The Munster-bound Felix Jones increased his influence by romping over for a try, his second in two games for Ireland ‘A’.
The 2007 Under-20 Grand Slam winner was fed by Boss, off a solid scrum in the English 22, and he ran clean through, exposing some poor defence from Varndell and Myler, to touch down to the left of the posts.
Sexton missed the conversion but Ireland ‘A’ took it up another notch, four minutes later, when they scored a try fit for a Rugby World Cup final never mind the Churchill Cup.
Jones, so dominant under the high ball, soared again to claim an up-and-under from Myler.
The Irish number 15 used his pace to spear through a gap and cleverly draw a tackle from Nick Abendanon, before linking with the supporting McFadden who also got the ball free out of a tackle to send Johne Murphy galloping over for his second try of the tournament.
This was Irish back-line play at its best and involved three players whose futures seem destined for Test rugby.
McFadden converted for 39-17 and Ireland ‘A’ were out of sight.
For them to build such a score in temperatures of close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and at the end of a long season was testament to the supreme fitness levels of the players.
The Saxons sent for reinforcements, with Danny Cipriani and Shane Geraghty sprung from the bench, but they had little influence as the hard-working Irish pack had a magnetic hold on the ball.
McFadden converted a penalty and then, after try scorer Woods was sin-binned, Ireland ‘A’ got the shove on at a scrum close to the English posts.
Replacement John Muldoon, the tour captain, picked off the base and shrugged off Phil Dowson’s challenge to claim try number six.
McFadden landed the conversion and although the Saxons had the final say when Varndell wormed his way over for an unconverted effort, nothing was going to take the shine off Irish rugby’s latest silverware-clinching triumph.
The result brought the curtain down on a success-laden season for the game in this country, with the Churchill Cup the fifth major trophy to be won in 2008/09 by an Irish side – the others being the RBS 6 Nations trophy, the Triple Crown, the Heineken Cup and the Magners League trophy.
TIME LINE: 3 minutes – England Saxons penalty: Stephen Myler – 0-3; 5 mins – England Saxons penalty: Stephen Myler – 0-6; 8 mins – Ireland ‘A’ penalty: Jonathan Sexton – 3-6; 15 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Devin Toner – 8-6; conversion: Jonathan Sexton – 10-6; 19 mins – England Saxons penalty: Stephen Myler – 10-9; 22 mins – England Saxons penalty: missed by Stephen Myler – 10-9; 25 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Isaac Boss – 15-9; conversion: Jonathan Sexton – 17-9; 31 mins – England Saxons penalty: Stephen Myler – 17-12; 34 mins – England Saxons sin-binning: Dan Cole; Ireland ‘A’ sin-binning: Chris Henry; 36 mins – Ireland ‘A’ drop goal: Jonathan Sexton – 20-12; 40 mins – England Saxons penalty: missed by Stephen Myler – 20-12; 39 mins – Ireland ‘A’ sin-binning: Jonathan Sexton; Half-time – Ireland ‘A’ 20 England Saxons 12; 41 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Sean Cronin – 25-12; conversion: Fergus McFadden – 27-12; 44 mins – England Saxons try: Ben Woods – 27-17; conversion: missed by Stephen Myler – 27-17; 51 mins – Ireland ‘A’ penalty: missed by Niall O’Connor – 27-17; 56 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Felix Jones – 32-17; conversion: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 32-17; 60 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Johne Murphy – 37-17; conversion: Fergus McFadden – 39-17; 65 mins – Ireland ‘A’ penalty: Fergus McFadden – 42-17; 74 mins – England Saxons sin-binning: Ben Woods; 76 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: John Muldoon – 47-17; conversion: Fergus McFadden – 49-17; 80 mins – England Saxons try: Tom Varndell – 49-22; conversion: missed by Shane Geraghty – 49-22; Full-time – Ireland ‘A’ 49 England Saxons 22
IRELAND ‘A’: Felix Jones (Seapoint/Leinster); Denis Hurley (Cork Constitution/Munster), Fergus McFadden (UCD/Leinster), Keith Matthews (Buccaneers/Connacht), Johne Murphy (Leicester Tigers); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Isaac Boss (Ballymena/Ulster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Sean Cronin (Buccaneers/Connacht), Tony Buckley (Shannon/Munster), Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Neil Best (Northampton Saints) (capt), Niall Ronan (Shannon/Munster), Chris Henry (Ballymena/Ulster).
Replacements used: Niall O’Connor (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster) for Henry (44 mins), John Muldoon (Galwegians/Connacht) for O’Connor (52), Denis Fogarty (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Cronin (63), Bryan Young (Ballymena/Ulster) for Healy, Trevor Hogan (Blackrock College/Leinster) for Toner, Simon Keogh (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Boss, James Downey (Northampton Saints) for Matthews (all 75).
ENGLAND SAXONS: Nick Abendanon (Bath); Noah Cato (Saracens), Dominic Waldouck (London Wasps), Brad Barritt (Saracens), Tom Varndell (Leicester Tigers); Stephen Myler (Northampton Saints), Micky Young (Newcastle Falcons); David Flatman (Bath), Rob Webber (London Wasps), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Stuart Hooper (Bath), Nick Kennedy (London Irish), Phil Dowson (Newcastle Falcons) (capt), Ben Woods (Leicester Tigers), Luke Narraway (Gloucester).
Replacements used: Dean Schofield (Sale Sharks) for Hooper (54 mins), Tom Guest (Harlequins) for Narraway, Tom Mercey (Saracens) for Cole (both 56), Danny Cipriani (London Wasps) for Myler, Shane Geraghty (London Irish) for Barritt (both 60), Joe Simpson (London Wasps) for Young (65), Joe Ward (London Wasps) for Webber (70).
Referee: Matt Goddard (Australia)