'Resilient' Strauss caps heroic return to give coach extra headache
England Saxons 8 Wolfhounds 14
JOE SCHMIDT must have a million things racing through his brain as he prepares for his first Six Nations campaign, but he just shook his head when he was asked about the remarkable recovery by Richardt Strauss from heart surgery.
You would imagine the new Ireland coach ruled out any chance of having the South African-born hooker available in his first campaign when he was diagnosed with a heart problem earlier this season.
However, Strauss made a quicker than expected return to Leinster colours last weekend and on Saturday night at Kingsholm he was back in the green of Ireland, delivering an accomplished second-half performance after being introduced from the bench.
"Richardt is resilient and he's a little bit of an opportunist. We had a couple of other hookers in the squad earlier in the season but Mike Sherry unfortunately had a knee injury," said Schmidt.
"Damien Varley was named to come into the squad and he took a bit of a knock as well so it just allowed the door to open for Richardt," said Schmidt.
"I coached Richardt for a number of years and know his quality. It's fantastic that he is back available. I'm delighted for him – he's a great fella.
"That would reflect his character pretty well, it reflects how he plays the game. If he gets knocked down he gets back up again and that's exactly what he's done."
The return of Strauss was just one of many positives to emerge from this match as a team prepared by Anthony Foley and Neil Doak showed a defensive resilience that will yield big dividends if Schmidt's men can replicate it in the Six Nations.
Ian Madigan, struggling to get a look-in at Leinster after the arrival of Jimmy Gopperth, was razor-sharp in the opening half.
So too was Isaac Boss against a disjointed Saxons side – the hosts had only two members of England's Six Nations squad on duty.
One of them, Bath's Anthony Watson, intercepted an overcooked pass from Felix Jones to Craig Gilroy to race in from distance, while the other, Freddie Burns, had a nightmare on his home patch – hitting the woodwork with two kicks at goal and fumbling the ball into touch with the line at his mercy in the last play of the game.
In contrast, the Wolfhounds looked much more accomplished and, while Foley and Doak had only had them for a week, it was obvious most of them had played with each other before.
Boss punished a sleepy defence after just five minutes. The former Ulster player executed a clever dummy and showed a clean pair of heels to the covering defence following a solid line-out maul from Ireland just inside the Saxons '22'.
And 10 minutes before the break Madigan took a quick tap penalty five yards from the England line and bulldozed over the whitewash despite the attentions of five white shirts.
Fergus McFadden and Robbie Henshaw did their cause no harm at all, while up front Ireland's wealth of front-row talent was evident in the pack's dominance.
Tommy O'Donnell, Rhys Ruddock and replacement Jordi Murphy posted big games, with Robin Copeland putting a nightmare start behind him to continue his upward career path.
"The boys acquitted themselves quite well in those conditions. It was tricky out there, wet underfoot, breezy, and in the first half we were unlucky not to be further ahead," said Foley.
"They dug in, played the game in the second half basically without the ball at times and managed to hold on at the end."
Ireland led 14-5 at the break and looked solid in defence as the Saxons came at them in waves of attacks.
Burns provoked ironic cheers from the 8,200 freezing supporters in Kingsholm when he eventually found his range after 63 minutes to set up an exciting finish that the contest hardly deserved, but Ireland defended the line to the death.
Schmidt, in the stand with Les Kiss and John Plumtree but with no hands-on match-day role, said that players knew there were places up for grabs and he said he would have selection dilemmas this week.
"I think there are some positions that the majority of people have a fair idea about and there are some positions that have been well documented in the media that are very much wide open," he said.
"That's part of the reason why myself John and Les are here tonight. We've divvied up a number of players who we are trying to keep an eye on, both on and off the ball and try to make some tough decisions.
"There'll be some tight decisions. They'll cover the next two weeks and then we'll maybe reshuffle the deck and go again without trying to remix too many things and lose continuity."
England Saxons – E Daly; A Watson, M Hopper (R Miller 40), S Hill (H Slade 31), C Sharples; F Burns, J Simpson (D Lewis 83); A Waller (N Catt 60), J George (D Ward 63), T Mercey (S Wilson 40); C Matthews (E Stooke 50), G Kruis; C Clarke, L Wallace, D Ewers (S Dickinson 50).
Ireland Wolfhounds – F Jones; F McFadden, R Henshaw (I Keatley 60), D Cave, C Gilroy (S Zebo 50); I Madigan, I Boss (K Marmion 70); D Kilcoyne (J McGrath 50), R Herring (R Strauss 40), M Moore (S Archer 50); I Henderson (R Diack 70), D Tuohy; R Ruddock, T O'Donnell (J Murphy 60), R Copeland.
REF – I Davies (WRU).