Young Ireland team keeps USA at bay

Joe Schmidt era starts with controlled but extremely nervy victory over more experienced US side

Ireland 15

USA 12

Scary looking scoreline. In fairness, the professionalism of this extremely young Ireland team, with five new caps blooded over the 80 minutes, kept it together, trusting their systems and defence, to keep an ultra-physical American pack at bay.

Whenever the US Eagles got within spitting distance of Ireland’s 22 the extremely intoxicated natives in this record 20,181 crowd went berserk.


It all finally ended with Devin Toner soaring about 20 foot into the Houston night sky to claim Chris Wyles' 22 after Ian Madigan had finally miscued a penalty from six attempts.

Madigan had flagged in advance how he intended to control this game's tempo, as interim head coach Les Kiss asked him to, not in the way of a Carlos Spencer type fly-half.

More a Ronan O’Gara-esque percentage playing outhalf.

Peter O'Mahony was a colossus, everywhere but the dodgy Irish lineout which lost four of its initial six throws (job one for Richardt Strauss and Toner tomorrow in Toronto), but it was Madigan who was tasked with guiding the ship home.

On 77 minutes he lined up that final kick and, as he had done with most penalties, for touch or goal, he took his time. The clock showed 79.10 when his boot connected with the ball.

Wyles, the Saracens fullback, who landed a perfect four from four penalties, knew that America needed to win back the 22 drop out, but if Madigan was at the helm, then Toner was the mast of this Ireland ship.

The night seemed to end seconds later as Paul Marshall, having earlier done his best Peter Stringer impression from the 2006 European Cup final, booting the ball dead. But there was more drama.

On return to the hotel, tired limbs and minds were greeted by the wonderful sight of Simon Zebo unable to contain his joy, bear hugging Ireland team manager Mick Kearney on hearing his Lions ticket had come in.

Here's the tale of the Joe Schmidt era beginning with a controlled but extremely nervy victory over a US side that boasted 66 more caps and a ferocious backrow.

Just ask O’Mahony. At one stage the young Irish captain was cleaned out by Northampton’s six-foot-seven inch, 19 stone assassin Samu Manoa.

“I got a good clatter to welcome me to the US, to be fair. But we expected nothing else. At the breakdown both teams went hard and it ended up being a bit scrappy. Personally, I really enjoyed the battle up front.”

Out of it for a few seconds, the Cork warrior literally banged the cobwebs out of his ear before locking a scrum.

That was an area of solace for Ireland; the first four scrums yielded penalties that resulted in six points and territory the lineout wouldn’t allow them convert into tries.

Take a bow Dave Kilcoyne and Mike Ross, they minced their opposite numbers.

“I felt like we were in control,” O’Mahony continued. “Mads and Stuart (Olding) were cool. They ran the game very well.

“We had an issue in the lineout, we’ll sort that during the week. Two of three of our set pieces, our scrum and restarts were very good.”

Madigan had settled into a rhythm after 10 minutes, opening his account after Kilcoyne buried Eric Fry.

The Americans were struggling with the rules; Francisco Pastrana twice penalising them on 17 minutes. After they failed to retreat 10 metres off Fergus McFadden's quick tap, opting to bloody the confrontational winger, Madigan made it 6-zip.

The crowd drank deep and were silent.

The Strauss lineout continued to struggle at the end of the first quarter, which literally paused for a pre-arranged water break, but on the resumption The Eagles sprung to life.

Darren Cave was pick-pocketed in possession, Todd Clever quickly going blind to Sevens flyer Luke Hume who beat teenager Robbie Henshaw to a grubber kick.

Olding and Isaac Boss made important cover tackles but "The Oven" had gone feral. Madigan's hands in the ruck, everyone was at it, allowed Wyles make it 6-3.

It was 9-6 approaching half-time, Madigan and Wyles swapping penalties after Manoa got up his first real head of steam and Henshaw was punished for not releasing.

But Madigan made it 12-6 at the turn after more dominant scrummaging by Ireland.

O’Mahony and Pastrana left the field at half-time like a young couple, arm in arm. That seemed promising for the “third quarter” but really Henshaw should’ve profited from McFadden’s break and looping pass to score in the left corner.

For whatever reason the ball went to ground, a certain try gone abegging.

Next Clever then took a 10 minute break for a tip tackle on Toner. At under-20 level you get red carded but in the senior ranks this offence only merits yellow.

That said, Pastrana wouldn't have got out of Texas alive if he sent off their Sherriff.

Madigan made it 15-6 and Ireland seemed out the gate.

Maybe the sticky night air was playing tricks with the mind.

A low bouncing ball into Ireland’s 22 needed to be scooped up and cleared by the young fullback. Henshaw, on his debut, knocked it on. Probably for the first time in his life. Mike McCarthy quickly rustled his hair and imparted choice words.

He’ll remember this and be better for it. He’s undoubtedly a keeper but that was an unforced error. It gave the US a scrum in Ireland’s 22 as eventually Wyles made it 15-12.

The water break was needed more than ever.

Henshaw bolted up in an attempt to atone by gathering Madigan’s restart only to be smashed mid-air by Doyle. He got up.

The game was a mess at this stage, a warzone. Perfect for America.

Madigan slowed it all down. So did Olding. Marshall arrived and improved the service to the pair. Tommy O'Donnell, Mike Sherry and Jamie Hagan also landed in for first caps. Felix Jones also arrived for Zebo.

America's coach Mike Tolkin resisted making any changes despite two rabid Irish men, Johnny Quill and Robbie Shaw, on his bench.

The end came softly enough. Biarritz flyer Taku Ngwenya tried to play the hero card, dashing out of his 22 only to be crushed by Jones. Penalty to Ireland for not releasing.

Madigan missed it, when he got around to actually taking it.

Then Toner soared above us all.

“An away win, five new caps in difficult conditions...” said interim head coach Les Kiss. “They were very physical.”

They really were. Onwards to Neil Young's home town where Jamie Cudmore and pals will hardly go easy on them.

Scoring sequence - 10 mins: I Madigan pen, 3-0; 17 mins: I Madigan, 6-0; 25 mins: C Wyles pen, 6-3; 30 mins: I Madigan pen, 9-3; 33 mins: C Wyles pen, 9-6; 39 mins: I Madigan 12-6. Half-time. 53 mins: I Madigan pen, 15-6; 57 mins: C Wyles pen, 15-9; 65 mins: C Wyles pen, 15-12.

IRELAND: R Henshaw; F McFadden, D Cave, S Olding, S Zebo; I Madigan, I Boss; D Kilcoyne, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; I Henderson, C Henry, P O'Mahony (capt). Replacements: F Jones for F McFadden (temp, 35-40 mins), T O'Donnell for C Henry (51-58 mins), J Hagan for M Ross (53 mins), T Court for D Kilcoyne (57 mins), P Marshall for I Boss (71 mins), F Jones for S Zebo, T O'Donnell for I Henderson (both 74 mins), D Tuohy for M McCarthy, M Sherry for R Strauss (both 76 mins).

USA: C Wyles; L Hume, J Paterson, A Suniula, T Ngwenya; T L'Estrange, M Petri; S Pittman, C Biller, E Fry; B Doyle, L Stanfill; S Manoa, S LaValla, T Clever (capt). Replacements: P Dahl for B Doyle (12-26 mins), S Kelly for L Hume (61 mins).

Referee: F Pastrana (Argentina)

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent