England Saxons vs. Ireland Wolfhounds @ Sandy Park, Exeter
Saturday 28th January (17.00) Sky Sports 1
The first international action of the year sees the Irish Wolfhounds take on the English Saxons in Exeter on Saturday. According to Declan Kidney, these Wolfhounds still have a chance of being selected for Ireland’s Six Nations opener with Wales in two weekend’s time. That should ensure a high-quality performance from this Irish side. Connacht coach Eric Elwood takes charge of the Wolfhounds this season and he has gone for a blend of youth and experience for the clash with the Saxons.
Munster hooker Damian Varley is joined in the front-row by his 23-year-old teammate Stephen Archer, who has only had nine PRO12 starts so far in his career. Connacht’s Brett Wilkinson is at loosehead. The second-row is made up of two players who are having superb seasons, Ulster’s Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy of Connacht. Both players will have realistic hopes of impressing enough here to break into the senior squad.
Ulster’s Chris Henry captains the team from openside. John Muldoon’s gritty performances for Connacht are rewarded with a spot on the blindside. Muldoon has ten caps at this level so adds some valuable experience. 21-year-old Rhys Ruddock completes the back-row at No.8. At 16 and a half stone, the youngster is not likely to shy away from the expected physical aspect to this game.
It’s a Leinster-Munster pairing in the halfbacks with Isaac Boss at scrumhalf and Ian Keatley at 10. With 12 and 7 caps appearances, both players are well accustomed to this level and should direct play with confidence. There’s an exciting-looking centre partnership for Elwood’s side with Ulster man Nevin Spence inside Leinster’s Eoin O’Malley. The power of Spence should nicely complement O’Malley’s evasiveness. Their battle with the Saxons partnership of Billy Twelvetrees and Matt Hopper promises to be one of the highlights of the game.
In the back-three, Gavin Duffy’s experience at fullback is qualified by the youthful talent of Simon Zebo and David Kearney on the wings. Zebo is the man of the moment and the Wolfhounds will look to deliver him ball in space. This trio will have their hands full defensively against the experienced Saxons back-three of Ugo Monye, Matt Banahan and Delon Armitage.
Elwood has some relative experience to call on from the bench, including Tomas O’Leary, Kevin McLaughlin, Denis Hurley and Devin Toner. Leinster’s talented outhalf Ian Madigan will hope for a chance to display his sharp attacking game while Munster hooker Mike Sherry is included despite only recently returning from an ankle injury. Connacht tighthead Ronan Loughney completes the match day 22.
The Saxons side has an overall youthful look to it. Scrumhalf Ben Spencer is still only 19. He has been vying with Peter Stringer for the number 9 jersey at Saracens this season. Outhalf Freddie Burns, of Gloucester is 21. Outside him is a backline that Saxons coach Jon Callard will expect to deliver tries. Twelvetrees is a combination of creativity and strength at 12, while Hopper offers a natural flair at outside centre. Banahan, Armitage and Monye have 55 England senior caps between them. Their blend of size, inventiveness and pace makes them a threatening unit.
Up front, Leicester No.8 Thomas Waldrom’s strong carrying will need to be stopped at source. He is flanked by Saracens’ Andy Saull, an intelligent natural openside, and James Gaskell. Sale’s Gaskell captains the team despite being only 21. Wasps’ Matt Garvey partners George Robson of Harlequins in the second-row. Paul-Doran Jones, once contracted to Leinster starts at tighthead. ‘Quins hooker Joe Gray and Worcester loosehead Matt Mullan complete the front-row.
One man to watch off the bench is Gloucester’s Jonny May. The speedy outside back showed his talent with a brilliant display in Gloucester’s shock win over Toulouse last weekend. Northampton outhalf Ryan Lamb is also on the bench, hoping to forget about last weekend.
The fact that Declan Kidney has said that the door to the senior squad remains open for these Wolfhounds should make this a game well worth watching. While their English counterparts would appear to have less of a chance of promotion, it’s impossible to guess how many of these players might have a role to play in the Six Nations. The addition of so many young talents on both sides means this clash offers us a glimpse of the future. It may not be a full international, but any game between Ireland and England is likely to be fiercely competitive.
England Saxons: 15 D Armitage (London Irish), 14 U Monye (Harlequins), 13 M Hopper (Harlequins), 12 B Twelvetrees (Leicester), 11 M Banahan (Bath), 10 F Burns (Gloucester), 9 B Spencer (Saracens), 1 M Mullan (Worcester), 2 J Gray (Harlequins), 3 P Doran-Jones (Northampton), 4 M Garvey (London Irish), 5 G Robson (Harlequins), 6 J Gaskell (Sale, capt.), 7 A Saull (Saracens), 8 T Waldrom (Leicester). Subs: 16 C Brooker (Harlequins), 17 R Harden (Gloucester), 18 K Myall (Sale), 19 T Johnson (Exeter), 20 P Hodgson (London Irish), 21 R Lamb (Northampton), 22 J May (Gloucester).
Ireland Wolfhounds: 15 Gavin Duffy (Connacht), 14 David Kearney (Leinster), 13 Eoin O’Malley (Leinster), 12 Nevin Spence (Ulster), 11 Simon Zebo (Munster), 10 Ian Keatley (Munster), 9 Isaac Boss (Leinster), 1 Brett Wilkinson (Connacht), 2 Damien Varley (Munster), 3 Stephen Archer (Munster), 4 Dan Tuohy (Ulster), 5 Mike McCarthy (Connacht), 6 John Muldoon (Connacht), 7 Chris Henry (Ulster, capt.), 8 Rhys Ruddock (Leinster). Subs: 16 Mike Sherry (Munster), 17 Ronan Loughney (Connacht), 18 Devin Toner (Leinster), 19 Kevin McLaughlin (Leinster), 20 Tomas O’Leary (Munster), 21 Ian Madigan (Leinster), 22 Denis Hurley (Munster).
Photos courtesy: Martin Dobey, cormac70, Ivan O’Riordan.