Disappointing Irish Wolfhounds fail to halt Saxons
Wolfhounds 9 Saxons 18
LIKE all auditions, last night's final trial contained a mixture of nerves, frayed performances and some individuals standing out from the crowd.
What follows is a nervous wait to see what Joe Schmidt made of it all from his casting couch at the back of the newly-constructed stand at Irish Independent Park. Some will return with reputations enhanced, others will be cut loose for the rest of the spring.
The result, a deserved and ultimately comprehensive win for an England side who controlled the game better and scored the only try through their impressive young out-half Henry Slade was largely irrelevant. What mattered here was who was putting their hands up for senior selection when the big show gets under way in Rome next Saturday.
Those who emerged in credit were the excellent Iain Henderson and Dominic Ryan, who can hope for bench spots at least next week after powerful displays, while Sean O'Brien made an impactful return to action even if he understandably faded as the night went on.
But in the backs there was less to marvel for the coach as Kieran Marmion and Ian Madigan - the likely starting out-half against Italy - failed to control the game while Gordon D'Arcy was poor after his few weeks out of the Leinster team. Alongside him, Keith Earls got through a decent 80 minutes on his first start of the season.
Ireland were dealt a blow before arriving at Munster's second home when Luke Fitzgerald's stomach bug caused him to cry off and forced a reshuffle that saw Craig Gilroy come into the team and Andrew Conway parachuted on to the bench.
Within 13 minutes, they were forced into another change to their back-three as Fergus McFadden left the field with a rib injury, but at that stage things were looking good.
In front of a sell-out 8,200 crowd who cheered his every touch, a fired-up O'Brien was making a nuisance of himself on his return to action, while Ryan welcomed Sam Burgess to competitive rugby union with a crunching tackle.
Earls and Henderson were looking lively in the loose, while Ross, McGrath and the excellent Richardt Strauss appeared to have the upper hand in the scrum and the lineout was functioning well.
However, there was a lack of fluency in the backline whenever the home side established good attacking position and Gordon D'Arcy was guilty of forcing the issue on a number of occasions to his team's cost.
That allowed the Saxons ride out the early storm and Jon Callard's side grew into the half as it went on.
Despite Burgess being patently off the pace as he continues to adjust to his high profile code-switch, the big English pack held on to the ball well and went through the phases.
Their No 8 Thomas Waldrom did well to break from a rapidly wheeling scrum and surged into Irish territory, before a well-worked Burgess cut-out to Henry Slade set the home defence scrambling.
Scenting blood, they switched the play right where Elliot Daly stayed on his feet well before recycling quickly and Slade crashed over from close range.
The young Exeter fly-half pulled his conversion left, but made amends with a penalty minutes later when D'Arcy and Madigan were guilty of over-elaborate messing in midfield and Madigan was penalised for holding on.
There was plenty at stake for the Leinster out-half who was having a mixed night, but he made his only attempt at goal after the English back-row cleared the way for a Chris Ashton breakout illegally.
Ireland still couldn't play their way into the game, however, despite some neat interplay between D'Arcy and Keith Earls on the left wing as Ross failed to support fellow prop Jack McGrath which gave Daly a long-range chance to restore his side's lead which he missed.
Slade wouldn't let the next piece of Irish ill-discipline go unpunished though as he nailed his kick after a sloppy Mike McCarthy no-arms tackle on Dave Ewers led to the Chief making it 11-3 at the break and the Leinster lock being forced off injured with a concussion.
Things might have gotten worse after play resumed as a poor Marmion kick allowed the Saxons counter and the impressive Wasps centre Daly skin his opposite number Earls on the outside. His chip eluded Marland Yarde, but Felix Jones was lucky to avoid sanction for a late hit after the ball had gone.
It was a let-off from Ireland who narrowed the lead through Madigan's boot when Ross forced a penalty, but lost O'Brien to a pre-planned substitution as he came off after a satisfying 52 minutes. Ross soon followed to be replaced by New Zealander Nathan White and the Corkman could also be pleased with his outing after being dropped by Leinster.
The Connacht tighthead didn't weaken the set-piece as they forced a penalty for Madigan to narrow the gap to two points; however, his knock-on brought Ireland's best hope of a try to an end just as the crowd were beginning to get excited.
Isaac Boss was setting the tempo well as the Wolfhounds managed their way deep into English territory, but within seconds quick thinking from Joe Simpson and Ashton had Conway scrambling in his own '22.
Ireland managed to escape from that scenario, but couldn't establish the territory they needed for a grand finale.
Instead, it was the Saxons who finished the night on the front-foot and got their second try on the final play when they capitalised on a scrum penalty by establishing good field position and then patiently went through the phases and eventually worked an overlap to put Christian Wade over.
Slade converted to give his side a double-scores win that probably reflected his side's dominance
The result will hardly last in the memory, but the performance will give Schmidt and his selectors plenty of food for thought as they focus fully on Rome and decide who gets a starring role and who ends up on the cutting room floor.
Ireland Wolfhounds - F Jones (capt) (C Gilroy 78); F McFadden (A Conway 13), K Earls, G D'Arcy, C Gilroy (N Reid 73); I Madigan, K Marmion (I Boss 55); J McGrath (M Bent 59), R Strauss (E McKeon 52), M Ross (N White 53); I Henderson, M McCarthy (R Diack 40); Dominic Ryan, S O'Brien (E McKeon 52), J Conan.
England Saxons - C Pennell; C Ashton, E Daly, S Burgess (O Devoto 73), M Yarde (C Wade 50); H Slade, L Dickson (J Simpson 64); M Mullan (A Waller 50), R Webber (L Cowan-Dickie 50), H Thomas; M Garvey ( (C Fearns 74), J Gaskell (M Itoje 16); D Ewers, M Kvesic, T Waldrom.
ref - N Hennessy (Wales)