The O2 Ireland Wolfhounds fell away in the second half as England Saxons emerged as 14-10 winners of a closely-fought ‘A’ international match at the Sportsground.
Kevin McLaughlin muscled over for a tenth minute try, with Paddy Jackson’s right boot ensuring a 10-0 half-time lead for the O2 Ireland Wolfhounds.
George Ford’s 50th-minute penalty got the Saxons off the mark, and the 19-year-old out-half went on to guide the visitors home backed by a stiffening Galway 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 for the remaining five minutes and 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.
The Wolfhounds’ debutant full-back Robbie Henshaw impressed under the high ball and threatened on occasion in attack, while home captain James Coughlan was particularly effective during the opening 40 minutes.
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 duo Henshaw and David McSharry enjoyed early carries – roared on by the Sportsground faithful – 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 the stand-off position, 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 skipper 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.
TIME LINE: 2 minutes – Ireland Wolfhounds penalty: missed by Paddy Jackson – 0-0; 10 mins – Ireland Wolfhounds try: Kevin McLaughlin – 5-0; conversion: Paddy Jackson – 7-0; 27 mins – England Saxons penalty: missed by George Ford – 7-0; 32 mins – Ireland Wolfhounds penalty: Paddy Jackson – 10-0; Half-time – Ireland Wolfhounds 10 England Saxons 0; 50 mins – England Saxons penalty: George Ford – 10-3; 62 mins – England Saxons penalty: George Ford – 10-6; 67 mins – England Saxons try: Will Fraser – 10-11; conversion: missed by George Ford – 10-11; 75 mins – England Saxons penalty: George Ford – 10-14; Full-time – Ireland Wolfhounds 10 England Saxons 14
O2 IRELAND WOLFHOUNDS: Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Connacht); Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster), Darren Cave (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), David McSharry (UCD/Connacht), Luke Fitzgerald (Blackrock College/Leinster); Paddy Jackson (Dungannon/Ulster), Paul Marshall (Ballymena/Ulster); David Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster), Mike Sherry (Garryowen/Munster), Michael Bent (Dublin University/Leinster), Lewis Stevenson (Malone/Ulster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Kevin McLaughlin (St.Mary’s College/Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (UL Bohemians/Munster), James Coughlan (Dolphin/Munster) (capt).
Replacements used: Tom Court (Malone/Ulster) for Kilcoyne (half-time), Isaac Boss (Terenure College/Leinster) for Marshall (52), Ian Madigan (Blackrock College/Leinster) for Henshaw (58), Damien Varley (Garryowen/Munster) for Sherry, Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster) for McLaughlin (both 63), Rhys Ruddock (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Stevenson (68), Ian Keatley (Young Munster/Munster) for McSharry (69), Declan Fitzpatrick (Dungannon/Ulster) for Bent (70).
ENGLAND SAXONS: Elliot Daly (London Wasps); Christian Wade (London Wasps), Joel Tomkins (Saracens), Jordan Turner-Hall (Harlequins), Tom Biggs (Bath); George Ford (Leicester Tigers), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens); Nick Wood (Gloucester), Joe Gray (Harlequins), Paul Doran-Jones (Northampton Saints), Graham Kitchener (Leicester Tigers), George Robson (Harlequins), George Kruis (Saracens), Will Fraser (Saracens), Jordan Crane (Leicester Tigers) (capt).
Replacements used: Joe Simpson (London Wasps) for Wigglesworth, Rob Buchanan (Harlequins) for Gray, Ed Slater (Leicester Tigers) for Kruis (all 60 mins), Matt Mullan (Worcester Warriors) for Wood (63), George Lowe (Harlequins) for Turner-Hall (68), Kieran Brookes (Leicester Tigers) for Doran-Jones (71), Kyle Eastmond (Bath) for Biggs (72). Not used: Jamie Gibson (London Irish).
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)