Burns howler hands tight game to hungry Hounds
England Saxons 8 Ireland Wolfhounds 14
It may have been January 25, but it was not Burns Night. Freddie Burns, not for the first time this season in front of the Shed, had a match in which the harder he tried, the more things went wrong for him.
With the last play of the game he had the opportunity to win a match the Wolfhounds had comfortably controlled for the most part, but made a mistake that will haunt and confound him for a considerable time. After Elliot Daly, attempting to use the conditions to slide his way over the line only to find the one dry patch on the pitch, was held up short of the line on the left wing, Burns went to pick up the ball and dive over.
The outhalf looked to have managed the first part, but as he went to reach out for the line, it looked as if he had attempted to give the touch judge a scoring pass and – as the official recovered to put up his flag and end the match – Burns held his head in his hands. A replay of the incident showed the ball slipped out of his grasp.
Irish coach Joe Schmidt, in the stands with Les Kiss and John Plumtree, was given food for thought as Anthony Foley's men produced a fine display. Two tries from the half-back partnership of Isaac Boss and Ian Madigan proved decisive.
"We had to hang in there towards the end, but it's a credit to the players that they did," said Foley. "They just stuck at it in fairness to them, right until the end. They knew the week's work was on the line, and they didn't let it go to waste."
Boss got over after five minutes of a game where the swirling wind made rugby difficult, while Madigan dashed over from a tapped penalty.
Only two players from England's Six Nations squad were fielded, Burns and Anthony Watson, while the Wolfhounds' starting side were all in Ireland's championship 46.
The Wolfhounds were more cohesive, keeping everything simple in demanding conditions. The heavy rain before kick-off had blown away, but a strong wind, which the Saxons played into in the opening half, made the home side's strategy of wide spacing between the outside backs hazardous.
The Saxons struggled to hold on to the ball and not many of the unforced errors could be put down to a lack of familiarity. Two of Burns's line-kicks in the opening quarter were charged down, his first two attempts at goal hit the post and passes went astray in a performance that summed up his season so far.
In contrast, his opposite number Madigan played with assurance and his presence of mind gave his side a 14-5 interval lead five minutes after Watson's interception try had interrupted a flow of Wolfhound attacks. With Boss a controlling influence from scrum-half, the men in green were largely in control without ever putting the game beyond the Saxons.
When the Saxons found their way into the opposition 22, they tended to self-combust. Daly, who played at full-back before moving into the centre after the interval, showed the occasional neat touch and found space on the outside only for his inside pass to be taken by Felix Jones, before Matt Hopper lost control of the ball.
The Wolfhounds had more shape, but a rare mistake gave the Saxons a way back into the contest. Jones's pass to Craig Gilroy on the halfway line was too hard and too high. The wing seemed to fend it off rather than try to catch it and when it fell into the grasp of Watson, there was no last line of defence to challenge the wing.
The response was instant. When another kickable penalty was sent into touch, the Wolfhounds drove another maul. The Saxons infringed and Madigan, spotting that the defence was expecting another kick to touch, ran five metres to pick up the ball, tapped it and shrugged off Simpson's tackle to score and convert his own try.
The Saxons only had a Burns penalty to show for their pressure and, until the end, did not worry a robust defence. "It did not quite go for Freddie, but he has been staggering all week," said the Saxons coach, Jonathan Callard. "We put down a marker tonight for English rugby with the number of youngsters we picked."