Who knows? It may be the shape of things to come in the Six Nations. Martin Johnson may have been difficult to spot in a crowd of almost 10,000 at the Recreation Ground – the place must be bigger than we think if England's brick-outhouse manager can hide in one of its corners – but he will have taken considerable encouragement from the performance of the Saxons in turning round the 49-point humping they received from Ireland's second-string last time out. That last time was a long time ago, and it happened in a country far away. All the same, it was a dramatic reversal of fortunes.
"When you think of how well Irish rugby has been going, both internationally and provincially; when you consider the average of our team was 23 and that they had 17 full caps between them, as opposed to the 300-plus the Irish brought with them ... that was a fantastic win," said Stuart Lancaster, the Saxons coach.
"We didn't have it all out own way by any stretch of the imagination, but the attitude and spirit was outstanding. We can take great pride in the desire the players showed in working hard for each other and for the shirt."
Hard work was certainly at the heart of it, for the Saxons, veritably smashed by these opponents in the final of the Churchill Cup in Colorado in June and finding themselves up against such gnarled Test veterans as Peter Stringer and Marcus Horan on this occasion, had precious little in the way of territory and possession, the usual building blocks of winning rugby at representative level. They were forced to repulse wave upon wave of Irish attacks, none of them particularly threatening but all of them physically punishing, and if Northampton back-rower Phil Dowson never makes another tackle, his defensive commitment here will ensure he is on the right side of the credit-debit line come retirement.
Dowson, hotly pursued by the London Irish hooker David Paice in the contest to horizontalize the most Irishmen, is precisely the kind of "honest professional" – yes, the phrase sounds horribly patronising – who does not feature on the Johnson radar in England terms. If he is a blip, he is a distant one, positioned somewhere near the black hole into which most players' international ambitions inevitably disappear. Yet in this kind of environment, he is worth his weight in a currency far more valuable than pounds sterling. Lancaster was keen to give him a mention in dispatches, and quite right too.
There were bright performances elsewhere, not least from the Saracens wing Noah Cato, who looked seriously dangerous in space. But most eyes were on Shane Geraghty, one of Dowson's colleagues at Franklin's Gardens, who was playing his first game since making something of a hash of things in his club's big Heineken Cup match against Munster in Limerick nine days previously. Happily, it was a different story yesterday. In a game that bordered on a non-event in the ideas department, he made three contributions – two in attack, one in defence – that made the difference.
The Saxons were 7-6 up, courtesy of David Strettle's soft try down the right on 13 minutes, when Geraghty - a half-Irish outside-half, if that makes sense – hoisted a high kick from his own 22, not generally a position from which such things are done. It caught the deep-lying defence betwixt and between, to the extent that the ball was recycled by the English back-rowers and moved sharply left, where Alex Goode, Cato and Brad Barritt, Saracens all, provided their playmaker-in-chief with the opportunity to finish what he had started.
Rather later – two minutes from the end of normal time, in fact – Geraghty pulled off a try-saving tap-tackle on Darren Cave just as the Irish were threatening to take advantage of the yellow card shown to Paul Doran-Jones, whose laughably transparent belly-flop on the wrong side of a ruck not only left the Saxons a man short but also contributed to Chris Henry's score off the base of the next scrum.
Then, by way of topping and tailing proceedings, the stand-off put up another perfectly-judged high ball and was rewarded with a second outbreak of Irish defensive chaos. Barritt, Dominic Waldouck and Geoff Parling all capitalised and from the ensuing penalty, Geraghty kicked a left-sided goal. All things considered, it was a fine response from a player whose confidence must have been shaken by events at Thomond Park.
"I worked with Shane at the Churchill Cup and I've followed his progress since," said Lancaster. "He's matured, and if he was one of those who had a difficult week after the last round of Heineken Cup matches, he has shown an ability to roll up his sleeves and get back out there." For his part, Geraghty was more motivated to right the wrongs of the Munster game than he was to avenge the harsh treatment meted out to him by Johnson during last autumn's international series. "It wasn't about reasserting myself in that sense," he said. "I just wanted to play the rugby I know I can play because I didn't have the best of games in Limerick."
Saxons rugby being the irregular phenomenon it is, Lancaster and company have one more game before the summer, against Italy A in Treviso. They could win that one by 50 points and still not see any of their number called into the Test squad. Not even Geraghty. "When you look at the competition in that position – Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood – you have to say its pretty tough," acknowledged the coach. If only England were as strong everywhere as they are at No 10.
Scorers: England Saxons – Tries: Strettle, Geraghty. Conversions: Geraghty 2. Penalty: Geraghty. Ireland A – Try: Henry. Conversion: Wallace. Penalties: Wallace 2.
England Saxons: A Goode (Saracens); D Strettle (Harlequins), D Waldouck (Wasps), B Barritt (Saracens), N Cato (Saracens); S Geraghty (Northampton), B Youngs (Leicester); N Wood (Gloucester), D Paice (London Irish), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), D Attwood (Gloucester), G Skivington (Wasps, capt), T Wood (Worcester), A Saull (Saracens), P Dowson (Northampton).
Replacements: L Narraway (Gloucester) for Saull 48; G Parling (Leicester) for Attwood 61; R Webber (Wasps) for Paice 62; T Mercey (Saracens) for Doran-Jones 68-82; M Young (Newcastle) for Youngs 70; M Benjamin (Worcester) for Strettle 75.
Ireland A: G Duffy (Connacht); I Dowling (Munster), F McFadden (Leinster), K Matthews (Connacht), F Carr (Connacht); P Wallace (Ulster), P Stringer (Munster); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), A Buckley (Munster), M O'Driscoll (Munster, capt), D Toner (Leinster), S O'Brien (Leinster), S Jennings (Leinster), J Muldoon (Connacht).
Replacements: J Fogarty (Leinster) for Best h-t; R Caldwell (Ulster) for O'Driscoll h-t; D Cave (Ulster) for Matthews 56; C Henry (Ulster) for Muldoon 56; I Boss (Ulster) for Stringer 68; M Ross (Leinster) for Buckley 68; I Humphreys (Ulster) for McFadden 75.
Referee: J Garces (France).
Byrne ban forces Wales to delay team selection
*Wales coach Warren Gatland is to delay his team announcement for next Saturday's Six Nations opener against England at Twickenham in the wake of a two-week ban handed to Ospreys full-back Lee Byrne.
Byrne is considering whether or not to appeal a suspension after he admitted a misconduct charge brought by European Rugby Cup disciplinary officer Roger O'Connor. It followed his brief appearance as an illegal 16th player during the recent Heineken Cup victory over Leicester. Byrne – who was expected to start at Twickenham – has until today to lodge any protest.