Despite an improved second half display, Ireland ‘A’ could not overhaul England Saxons in Sunday’s international encounter in Bath as they fell to their first defeat since the summer of 2008.
‘A’ INTERNATIONAL MATCH: Sunday, January 31
ENGLAND SAXONS 17 IRELAND ‘A’ 13, The Recreation Ground, Bath
Scorers: England Saxons: Tries: David Strettle, Shane Geraghty; Cons: Shane Geraghty 2; Pen: Shane Geraghty
Ireland ‘A’: Try: Chris Henry; Con: Paddy Wallace; Pens: Paddy Wallace 2
Ireland’s seven-match winning run at ‘A’ level was ended on Sunday as England Saxons gained some revenge for their heavy defeat to the same opposition in last year’s Churchill Cup final, thanks largely to first half tries from David Strettle and Shane Geraghty.
Out-half Geraghty slipped through for the Saxons’ second try and booted two conversions, including a touchline kick after winger Strettle’s early touchdown, before slotting an injury-time penalty to clinch a narrow win.
Paddy Wallace, who started at out-half, kicked two first half penalties and lively replacement Chris Henry, a late call-up for Niall Ronan, claimed a 64th minute score – converted by Wallace – that ensured a frenzied finale.
But although Fionn Carr and Fergus McFadden had their moments in attack, Michael Bradley’s men lacked composure at critical times and they could not turn a lengthy late spell in the English 22 into a match-winning try.
The Saxons were smashed 49-22 when the sides met in Colorado last June, yet they looked more at home on a cold afternoon at Bath’s Recreation Ground.
Some of the Saxons’ play was less than pretty, yet when Geraghty, who kicked a huge amount in the first half, moved possession wide, impressive winger Noah Cato did cause problems.
Ireland ‘A’, who had the better of possession and territory, also had their moments – notably a slashing early break by Munster winger Ian Dowling – before Henry’s timely try, with Saxons prop Paul Doran-Jones in the sin-bin, set up a nail-biting climax.
But Geraghty also showed his defensive prowess when the Saxons needed it, executing a crucial tackle on the speedy Carr when the men in green launched a thrilling late breakaway.
It was then a case of all hands to the pump, yet the English side’s aggressive defending denied Ireland ‘A’ an all-important second try.
Ireland ‘A’ made all the initial running, easing ahead through Wallace’s third-minute penalty as the hosts struggled to establish any fluency or pattern.
The Irish forwards, who included the fit-again Rory Best and Marcus Horan, established a degree of territorial control before the Saxons struck from their first serious attack.
Peter Stringer’s opposite number Ben Youngs made a darting break inside the Irish 22, and Strettle finished impressively after gathering his scrum half’s pass.
Geraghty landed the conversion from wide out on the right, but Wallace’s second penalty brought Ireland ‘A’ to within a point after 22 minutes.
England Saxons, though, had found some confidence with ball in hand, a mood they graphically illustrated through their second try 10 minutes before half-time.
Full-back Alex Goode made attacking in-roads, linking with his Saracens colleague Cato who broke free from a tackle from Wallace, and after a third Saracens player – centre Brad Barritt – appeared on Cato’s shoulder, Geraghty had a simple task of sprinting over unopposed.
Geraghty’s second successful conversion took the Saxons into a healthy 14-6 lead, and the home side continued growing in confidence with an effective scrum and lineout.
Wallace then missed a kickable penalty chance on the stroke of half-time, after a sidestepping break by Carr, but England Saxons were good value for their advantage given how they had created those tries.
Bradley made two changes for the second period, replacing hooker Best with John Fogarty and sending on lock Ryan Caldwell for team captain Mick O’Driscoll, with Wallace taking over as skipper.
The Saxons also utilised their bench, with flanker Luke Narraway, lock Geoff Parling and hooker Rob Webber all being given chances to impress.
But the home side spent much of the second half defending. Ireland ‘A’ exerted more dominance up front but the final pass was missing on a couple of occasions as they tried to work Carr, Dowling and McFadden into space.
McFadden’s centre partner Keith Matthews put in an accomplished first half, going on a couple of eye-catching runs and using his positional sense to put in some solid tackles.
The back row of Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings and John Muldoon also upped the ante in the third quarter, with O’Brien and Muldoon proving hard to haul down with ball in hand.
Alarm bells started ringing as Ireland ‘A’ rampaged forward and Henry, back at the ground where he led Ulster to victory over Bath, crashed over just a minute after Doran-Jones was yellow carded for killing possession.
English number 8 Phil Dowson was badly caught out as Henry was fed an inside pass by fellow replacement Isaac Boss and raced in behind the posts, allowing Wallace a simple conversion.
The Irish replacements added some spark to the visitors’ play but the Saxons doggedly held out, albeit in grim survival mode during a breathless final quarter-hour that saw Ireland ‘A’ lay siege to the home 22.
Ultimately, defence won the day, as the Saxons engineered just enough territory to pin Ireland ‘A’ back and an offside from Henry left Geraghty to kick a decisive penalty with the game’s final act.