Exeter's home ground was a slightly unnerving place for English representative rugby to resume after the World Cup calamity in New Zealand, a tournament at which the red-rose fraternity managed to submerge both themselves and the sporting reputation of their nation in a fathomless pit of quicksand. Last night, a few miles from Dartmoor and its Grimpen Mire, the new breed set about putting things right with a sound victory over dangerous-looking opponents in a second-string international that was as interesting as it was keenly fought.
Unlike Martin Johnson's senior side on Grand Slam day last spring, the Saxons set about dousing any Irish fires by establishing early dominance up front. Powerful scrummaging from Matt Mullan and Paul Doran-Jones set the tone for the first quarter – Mullan, the Worcester prop who might have made himself extremely valuable to the Johnson regime but for a lengthy injury lay-off, was impressive on the drive too – and it was no particular shock when the home side set the scoreboard in motion.
First, the fly-half Freddie Burns nailed a penalty after Ugo Monye wrapped up Eoin O'Malley and forced him into a no-release infringement. Then, nine minutes in, Burns set up a strong attacking position with an excellent penalty to touch and after the forwards mauled strongly upfield off James Gaskell's line-out delivery, sending Mullan to within a couple of metres of the line, the scrum-half Ben Spencer dummied over for the try. The conversion was of the "easy meat" variety for Burns.
After this flurry, the Saxons spent the best part of 15 minutes knocking down opponents. Their defence was decent enough – Matt Banahan's covering hit on Simon Zebo made a statement that will ring in the much talked-about Munster wing's ears for some time – but they eventually cracked when Rhys Ruddock, son of the former Wales coach Mike, made the running for David Kearney's try to the left of the posts, aided and abetted by O'Malley's sweet inside pass.
The Saxons were benefiting from a second wind by the end of the half, though, and on the resumption they widened their lead. There was some good fortune: Banahan's grubber kick inside the Wolfhounds' 22 was not the brightest idea but at least it forced a five-metre scrum. From the set piece, Burns also tried a toe-poke that did not go as planned, but the ball ricocheted into the arms of Thomas Waldrom and there was no stopping the naturalised New Zealander. Again, Burns converted.
If they could not quite shake off the visitors – the scrum-half Tomas O'Leary scored at the sticks just shy of the hour to cut the arrears to five – the Saxons' control at close quarters was decisive. The pack bossed the final stages and Burns, an assured figure throughout, was able to kick two more penalties, rendering Zebo's injury-time score irrelevant.
England Saxons: D Armitage (London Irish); U Monye, M Hopper (both Harlequins), W Twelvetrees (Leicester), M Banahan (Bath); F Burns (Gloucester), B Spencer (Saracens); M Mullan (Worcester), J Gray (Harlequins), P Doran-Jones (Northampton), M Garvey (London Irish), G Robson (Harlequins), J Gaskell (Sale, capt), T Waldrom (Leicester), A Saull (Saracens). Replacements: K Myall (Sale) for Garvey, 46; J May (Gloucester) for Banahan, 59; C Brooker (Harlequins) for Gray, 59; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Spencer, 65; T Johnson (Exeter) for Saull, 69.
Ireland Wolfhounds: G Duffy (Connacht); D Kearney, E O'Malley (both Leinster), N Spence (Ulster), S Zebo; I Keatley (both Munster), I Boss (Leinster); B Wilkinson (Connacht), D Varley, S Archer (both Munster), D Tuohy (Ulster), M McCarthy, J Muldoon (both Connacht), C Henry (Ulster, capt), R Ruddock (Leinster). Replacements: I Madigan (Leinster) for Keatley 51; T O'Leary (Munster) for Boss 51; D Hurley (Munster) for Duffy 54; R Loughney (Connacht) for Wilkinson 59; D Toner (Leinster) for McCarthy 61; M Sherry (Munster) for Varley 65; K McLaughlin (Leinster) for Muldoon 65;
Referee: C Marchat (France).
England Saxons 23 Ireland Wolfhounds 17
Tries: Spencer, Waldrom
Cons: Burns 2
Pens: Burns 3
Tries: Kearney, O'Leary, Zebo