Photo: Getty Images
England Counties have been a while bringing their talents to the North, but their five-try 34-16 win over the Ulster Bank International Team at Preston Grasshoppers was well worth the wait.
Counties preparations had focussed on the expectation that if the Irish pack could be contained, the hosts would have enough pace and skill behind the scrum to come out on top.
The match lived up to those expecations with the Counties forwards working manfully to keep a fierce Irish onslaught at bay and the backs feasting voraciously on scraps of broken play possession.
“It was a fantastic game and I’m really pleased that we had a 22-man performance with everyone making a contribution,” said England Counties Manager Mike Old. “The Irish forwards really gave us a hard time, but the forwards fronted up tremendously and we showed lots of pace and skill behind.
“It’s the biggest win we’ve had against Ireland and it levels the series. We always thought that with the pace of the back line we had out, if we could win enough ball we’d have an excellent chance.”
That scenario unfolded with remarkable accuracy in first half in which the Irish side had the bulk of possession and most of the territorial pressure but went in at half time trailing 19-9 with only three penalties by fly half Craig Ronaldson as reward for the pressure they exerted.
The Counties, in contrast, though locked in an unrelenting battle for long spells, always threatened whenever they managed to acquire quick ball and the self-confidence of Ealing full-back Peter Hodgkinson sparking their best moments with prolific wing Phil Chesters demonstrating why his finishing is so deadly with the Trailfinders.
Lock Louis McGowan gave the Counties the lead when he drove over from close range after seven minutes, with fly half Ross Laidlaw converting. But it was the combination of full-back Peter Hodgkinson and Chesters which brought the next try as the wing cantered in from 30 yards.
Photo: Getty Images
Hodgkinson’s next contribution was a superb try-saving tackle on replacement centre James Thompson when an Irish try beckoned. But he was soon back on the offensive, launching an audacious counter attack that allowed Chesters to accelerate away from 50 yards out for a try that Laidlaw converted.
Ronaldson’s third penalty made it 19-9 at the interval. Laidlaw nudged his side further ahead soon after the restart with a penalty but Ireland responded with an elusive piece of running of their own when wing Cathal Quinn skipped nimbly through the Counties defence for a try at the posts that Ronaldson converted.
Undaunted, Hodgkinson continued his virtuoso display, breaking free up the middle and creating the space for centre Andrew Henderson who passed for Owen Bruynseels to go over in the corner giving the Counties a 27-16 advantage after 56 minutes.
The departure of flanker Dave Allen (Counties) and prop Ben Barclay (Ireland) to the sin-bin and a series of substitutions brought a fragmented conclusion to proceedings, but though the visitors continued their robust, full-frontal assault, the Counties held firm and had the last word when replacement lock Chris Wearmouth powered over for Laidlaw to convert.
England Counties: Peter Hodgkinson (Ealing Trailfinders); Phil Chesters (Ealing Trailfinders), Andrew Henderson (Barking), Tom Wheatcroft (Ealing Trailfinders), Owen Bruynseels (Ealing Trailfinders); Ross Laidlaw (Rosslyn Park), Harry Peck (Tynedale); Robbie Kalbraier (Blaydon), Matt Hall (Blaydon), Tom Mantell (Macclesfield), Louis McGowan (Sedgley Park), Robbie Hurrell (Stourbridge), Lee Starling (Ealing Trailfinders), Dave Allen (Blackheath), Rob Baldwin (Wharfedale) capt.
Replacements all used: David Dickinson (Tynedale), Sam Wilkes (Cinderford), Sam Shires (Tynedale), Chris Wearmouth (Blaydon), Philip Woodhead (Wharfedale), Chris Briers (Fylde), Mike Waywell (Fylde).
Ulster Bank Club International Team: Rodger McBurney (Ballymena); Cian Aherne (Lansdowne), Killian Lett (Clontarf), Mike Kelliher (Young Munster), Cathal Quinn (Cork Constitution); Craig Ronaldson (Lansdowne), Gerry Hurley (Cork Constitution) capt; Ben Barclay (Clontarf), Ger Slattery (Young Munster), Christy Condon (Dolphin), Philip Donnellan (Cork Constitution), Fergal Walsh (Shannon), Liam Og Murphy (Young Munster), Barry O'Mahony (Clontarf), Frank Cogan (Clontarf).
Replacements all used: Hugh McGrath (Young Munster), Risteard Byrne (UCD), Damian Hall (St. Mary’s College), Neville Melbourne (Young Munster), Brian Slater (UCC), Barry Keeshan (Dolphin), James Thompson (Ballynahinch).
Referee: Johann van der Merwe (Scotland)