An unremittingly tough encounter to usher in a weekend that may not get any easier for England's Grand Slam-hunting party. The visitors did many things right in the back yard of the powerful Leinster province last night, but they struggled to free their exciting, supremely athletic forwards – James Forrester and Chris Jones barely had a look-in – and failed to shake off an Irish team full of passionate muscularity. They paid the price late on, conceding a converted try to the Ulsterman Tyrone Howe, and an extraordinary 50-metre penalty to Mark McHugh, who did the business with the last act of the game.
McHugh's shot bounced over off the left-hand post, which rubbed an entire ocean's worth of salt in English wounds. It was no more than the Irish deserved, for they refused to panic when they were on the back foot either side of the break and took every last opportunity that came their way. They are a cussed lot, to be sure.
Dublin is alive with rugby fever, a highly pleasing condition amply reflected by the full house packed into Donnybrook for a match between two high-quality sides who would not have disgraced a Test arena. England fielded nine full internationals – it was hard to imagine them putting together anything stronger at this level, despite the withdrawal of Andy Gomarsall at scrum-half – and despite a lively start by their hosts, who scored inside 90 seconds, they controlled first-half possession and territory in precisely the fashion their seniors will hope to emulate tomorrow.
The opening try showed the best of the Irish and their new-found spirit of adventure. Barry Everitt, the London Irish stand-off, has endured a rough time of it in the English Premiership of late, but he switched the point of his side's first attack effectively enough from the kick-off, and when the impressive David Quinlan slid a kick behind a stretched defence towards the right corner, the Ulster hooker Paul Shields was handily placed to complete the score.
As per usual in second-string meetings between the two countries, there was enough red-raw action in the contact areas to satisfy the most pugilistically motivated of spectators. Alex King was bloodied early on and retreated to the dressing-room for running repairs – in his absence, Ollie Barkley, of Bath, opened the English account with a penalty – while Robbie Morris, the Northampton prop, took a real pasting on the floor after a rough-and-tumble line-out. He, too, was cut, but returned to the fray the moment the medical staff had completed their work.
King was back in commission after a 10-minute break, and although he fluffed a kickable penalty at the start of the second quarter, he put England ahead with a straightforward kick shortly afterwards after Mark Cueto's strong tackle on McHugh allowed the visitors to attack from near half-way. When Dan Scarbrough, particularly lively at full-back, claimed a kick-ahead try shortly before the break, the gap grew to eight points, but Brian O'Meara had the final say of the period with a penalty in stoppage time.
That, together with an injury suffered by England's influential open-side flanker Adam Vander, signalled a shift in the balance of a tight contest. O'Meara was on the board again within 10 minutes of the re-start, and despite a second Scarbrough try in the right corner – a score beautifully constructed by Mike Worsley, whose footballing skills were hardly appropriate to his front-row status – Howe's contribution laid the foundations for McHugh's heroics.
Ireland A: Tries Shields, Howe; Conversion O'Meara; Penalties O'Meara 3, McHugh. England A: Tries Scarbrough 2; Conversion King; Penalties King 2, Barkley.
IRELAND A: M McHugh (Connacht); J Topping (Ulster), M Mullins (Munster), D Quinlan (Leinster), T Howe (Ulster); B Everitt (London Irish), B O'Meara (Leinster); E Byrne (Leinster), P Shields (Ulster), S Best (Ulster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), J Davidson (Ulster, capt), S Easterby (Llanelli), K Dawson (London Irish), D Dillon (Leinster). Replacements: A McCullen (Leinster) for Dillon, 14; A Horgan (Munster) for Topping, h-t; P Bracken (Connacht) for Best, 70; M O'Driscoll (Munster) for O'Callaghan, 71.
ENGLAND A: D Scarbrough (Leeds); M Cueto (Sale), F Waters (Wasps), B Johnston (Saracens), P Christophers (Bristol); A King (Wasps), N Walshe (Saracens); M Worsley (London Irish), M Regan (Leeds), R Morris (Northampton), S Shaw (Wasps), C Jones (Sale), M Corry (Leicester, capt), A Vander (Bath), J Forrester (Gloucester). Replacements: O Barkley (Bath) for King, 7-17; M Fitzgerald (Biarritz) for Morris, 17-22 and 85; H Vyvyan (Newcastle) for Vander, 42; T Palmer (Leeds) for Jones, 68; A Titterrell (Sale) for Regan, 76; M Stephenson (Newcastle) for Waters, 77.
Referee: G Davis (Scotland).
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