Ireland ‘A’ qualified for the Churchill Cup final for the first time, claiming their second pool win at Infinity Park on Sunday with a six-try success over a physical Georgian side.
2009 CHURCHILL CUP – POOL A: Sunday, June 14
IRELAND ‘A’ 40 GEORGIA 5, Infinity Park, Glendale, Colorado
Scorers: Ireland ‘A’: Tries: Johne Murphy, Fergus McFadden 2, Felix Jones, Tony Buckley, Chris Henry; Cons: Niall O’Connor, Fergus McFadden; Pens: Niall O’Connor 2
Georgia: Try: Zviad Maisuradze
Ireland ‘A’ came into this game needing just a point to book their place in next Sunday’s Churchill Cup final, after three successive years of winning the Plate final.
And that point was chalked up just before half-time when prop Tony Buckley took a brilliant pop pass from man-of-the-match Niall Ronan and handed off Lekso Gugava for a short run to the try-line.
Showing nine changes to the team that defeated Canada 30-19 in midweek, the Irish looked more cohesive in attack and took their first half scores with a clinical edge.
There were seven Irish players starting an international for the first time this summer, including Munster-bound full-back Felix Jones and two members of Leinster’s Heineken Cup-winning squad, Cian Healy and Trevor Hogan.
Jones, making his Ireland ‘A’ debut, was solid in defence and had some eye-catching moments in attack, and the freshness in the Ireland ‘A’ line-up helped to quell Georgia’s early fire.
The Georgians came into this game off the back of a 42-10 loss to Canada last weekend and they were eager to bounce back with wily captain Grigol Labadze leading from the front.
Labadze lined out for Georgia when they almost scored a surprise victory over Ireland at the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
But hopes of a shock result here were effectively dashed by an impressive opening quarter from Ireland ‘A’.
Out-half Niall O’Connor kicked two penalty goals from three early shots at the posts to put the men in green 6-0 ahead,
The first Ireland ‘A’ try came after 15 minutes and just when Georgia looked set to make use of a two-on-one overlap.
Full-back Teimuraz Sokhadze fumbled the ball as the Georgians attacked wide out on the right and Johne Murphy quickly gathered in the ball, dummied the covering Revaz Gigauri and raced along the touchline and in for the try from 40 yards out.
It was a real sucker-punch for Georgia to contend with. O’Connor missed the conversion but Tim Lane’s side were back behind their posts just four minutes later.
This time, the excellent Fergus McFadden stepped in off his left on a powerful run from just outside the 22 to splay the Georgian defence wide open and canter for the second Irish try.
The build-up play was just as good as back rowers Ronan and John Muldoon carried forward with great purpose and Jones set up a key ruck by soaring high to collect his own up-and-under.
The Irish back row combination, with Neil Best as tigerish as ever, was taking the game to their Georgian counterparts and Ireland ‘A’ continued to make good use of the go-forward ball.
But Ireland ‘A’ did have one notable problem, the scrum. The Georgians are noted for their powerful scrummaging and one such shove, five metres out from the Irish try-line, led to their one and only score.
They put pressure on the Irish front row, the scrum was shunted backwards and number 8 Zviad Maisuradze picked off the base and scrambled his way over.
Television replays showed that Labadze had held Irish scrum half Frank Murphy back as he tried to tackle the try scorer but even had Murphy managed to stop Maisuradze, the Georgians would still have been odds-on to score off the next phase.
Merab Kvirikashvili missed his conversion attempt and Ireland ‘A’ hit back off the next wave of attacks.
Hogan claimed the restart kick, his second row partner Donnacha Ryan secured lineout possession after O’Connor shunned a penalty kick and the Irish, camped in the Georgian 22, were soon over for their third try.
Muldoon, Ronan and Hogan sucked in defenders in the middle and then two quick passes out to the left from Frank Murphy and O’Connor put Jones weaving over in the corner past two tacklers.
O’Connor failed to add the extras but they ended the first half on a high by sending Buckley over for the bonus point try.
Denis Fogarty found Ryan at the lineout again and the forwards showed admirable patience in a well-worked maul.
Ronan held the ball at the back as the Irish trundled forward and then a neat pass from the flanker out to the right gave Buckley the chance to shrug off Gugava’s attempted tackle with a huge hand-off and bound over for an unconverted try and a 28-5 half-time lead.
O’Connor may have missed some kickable conversions but his kicking out of hand and distribution skills were top notch and he had a central role in the fifth Irish try.
Centre James Downey almost got over in the left corner, but he was adjudged to have had a foot in touch.
Ireland ‘A’ had a penalty advantage anyway. Camped near the Georgian line, the Irish pounded away through Fogarty, Best and Healy before O’Connor fed McFadden with an inside ball and the Leinster centre thundered over from close range for his third try of the tournament.
McFadden converted the try himself, with O’Connor called ashore for Jonathan Sexton and head coach Declan Kidney took the option to unload his bench over the closing half-hour.
There were changes a-plenty for both teams and adapting to them, coupled with the worsening weather conditions which included a storm warning, heavy rain and increasing wind, proved difficult.
Taking their foot off the pedal, Ireland ‘A’ failed to push on with more tries in them and the game gradually became scrappy and loose.
With thunder and lightning above, Irish frustrations were growing as they missed out on two possible tries. A Sexton pass was too far in front of Johne Murphy with the Georgian defence stretched and then Jones fumbled another Sexton delivery out wide on the right.
The floodlights went out as the stormy conditions set in but Ireland ‘A’ mustered a late sixth try when replacement Chris Henry, who did very well in the loose, scored a five-pointer out wide.
Referee Matt Goddard wisely brought an early end to proceedings, just moments after the try, with the rain pelting down and both sets of players running for cover.
So, two bonus point wins have Kidney’s men 80 minutes away from winning the Churchill Cup for the first time.
But, as the players noted afterwards, they will have to take it up ‘a notch or two’ to get the better of England Saxons, who beat the USA 56-17 earlier and who are gunning for their third Churchill Cup title in as many years.
Nex Sunday’s final, at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, will kick off at 2.30pm local time/9.30pm Irish time and will be the first Ireland v England clash at ‘A’ level this year after February’s friendly at Donnybrook was called off due to an unplayable pitch.
TIME LINE: 4 minutes – Ireland ‘A’ penalty: missed by Niall O’Connor – 0-0; 7 mins – Ireland ‘A’ penalty: Niall O’Connor – 3-0; 9 mins – Ireland ‘A’ penalty: Niall O’Connor – 6-0; 15 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Johne Murphy – 11-0; conversion: missed by Niall O’Connor – 11-0; 19 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Fergus McFadden – 16-0; conversion: Niall O’Connor – 18-0; 23 mins – Georgia try: Zviad Maisuradze – 18-5; conversion: missed by Merab Kvirikashvili – 18-5; 27 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Felix Jones – 23-5; conversion: missed by Niall O’Connor – 23-5; 38 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Tony Buckley – 28-5; conversion: missed by Niall O’Connor – 28-5; Half-time – Ireland ‘A’ 28 Georgia 5; 49 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Fergus McFadden – 33-5; conversion: Fergus McFadden – 35-5; 79 mins – Ireland ‘A’ try: Chris Henry – 40-5; conversion: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 40-5; Full-time – Ireland ‘A’ 40 Georgia 5
IRELAND ‘A’: Felix Jones (Old Belvedere/Leinster); Simon Keogh (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Fergus McFadden (UCD/Leinster), James Downey (Northampton Saints), Johne Murphy (Leicester); Niall O’Connor (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), Frank Murphy (Buccaneers/Connacht); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Denis Fogarty (Cork Constitution/Munster), Tony Buckley (Shannon/Munster), Trevor Hogan (Blackrock College/Leinster), Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster), Neil Best (Northampton Saints), Niall Ronan (Shannon/Munster), John Muldoon (Galwegians/Connacht) (capt).
Replacements used: Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for O’Connor, Chris Henry (Ballymena/Ulster) for Ronan (both 50 mins), Bryan Young (Ballymena/Ulster) for Healy, Sean Cronin (Buccaneers/Connacht) for Fogarty, Isaac Boss (Ballymena/Ulster) for F Murphy (all 62), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) for Best, Keith Matthews (Buccaneers/Connacht) for McFadden (both 71).
GEORGIA: Teimuraz Sokhadze (Unattached); George Elizbarashvili (Lokomotivi), Aleksander Todua (Lelo), Revaz Gigauri (Massy), Lekso Gugava (Lokomotivi Tbilisi); Merab Kvirikashvili (Massy), Giorgi Rokhvadze (AIA); David Dadunashvili (Perigaux), Jaba Bregvadze (Kochebi Tbilisi), Giorgi Jgenti (Oyonnax), Kakhaver Uchava (Costanca Farul), Giorgi Nemsadze (Domont), Grigol Labadze (Unattached) (capt), Simon Maisuradze (Clermont Auvergne), Zviad Maisuradze (Lokomotivi).
Replacements: Iuri Natriashvili (Farul Constanca), Zero Petriashvili (Lokomotivi), Vasil Kakovin (Universteti), Rati Urushadze (Enisei-STM), Lasha Malaguradze (Beziers), Davit Kacharava (Enisei-STM), David Losaberidze (AIA).
Referee: Matt Goddard (Australia)