Despite the narrow defeat Ireland can take some positives out of this game.
First and foremost, in the minds of most Ulster supporters anyway, was the encouraging performance of Rory Best who gave a strong display in set and lose, covering a lot of ground in his 40 minute cameo.
Marcus Horan, also returning from injury, lasted the full game but along with Buckley, struggled against his opposite number in the scrums. Then again scrummaging was never either of these two’s great strengths. In Horan’s case he remained competitive throughout but Buckley’s contribution trailed of sharply after a couple of bursts and I spent the rest of the game shouting at him lumbering from ruck to ruck, contributing very little.
Ireland competed well in the lineouts, but lost most of this advantage in the rucks with the back row completely outplayed despite the efforts of Jennings. Things improved when Henry came on but with the front five carrying passengers in Buckley and Toner it was a frustrating day for the halfbacks who had to work off slow ball. As a consequence Paddy Wallace and, for the closing moments, Ian Humphreys had little chance to make an impact, finding the English defence in their faces as the ball arrived.
Paddy managed to keep things moving with percentage plays, but Humphreys, no doubt frustrated with his lack of game time, probably did his chances more harm than good with his high risk play which failed to come off.
Caldwell plodded along nicely when he came on and embraced his opportunity of game time having been selected in front of Tuohy and O’Donoghue. He does seem to finally understand the the need to concentrate more on his own game, rather than his opponents, and will look at this as an opportunity to recover his form.
Cave looked strong and sharp when he came on and may have been a better foil for Ireland if he had appeared earlier, but having said that the midfield paring of Mathews and McFadden were Ireland’s strength for long periods. The Ulsterman should get more game time on Friday night to display his wares.
The biggest impact in the game was made by, Leinster bound, Isaac Boss who managed to exploit the Saxons’ sin binning with consummate ease sending Henry through for his try and narrowly failing on a second occasion. His strength and robust play allowed him to cope with the slow ball more effectively than Stringer and he should have moved himself up a notch or two in the Ireland pecking order. Unfortunately for Ulster it looks as though we will be seeing the best of our imported Kiwi in blue rather than white!