ENGLAND COUNTIES survived a second-half fightback to record their first victory over an AIB Ireland Club XV.
In a eight-try thriller at Stourbridge's Stourton Park, the Counties scored their four - including two for fullback Frankie Neale - in a whirlwind first half to lead 26-3 before the Irish finally found their feet and racked up four in return.
Only the boot of Sam Ulph, who kicked three conversions to that of Ireland's Barry Keeshan, and some sterling English defence in the dying minutes, secured the win at the third time of asking against the Irish.
The Counties, who had lost and drawn their previous encounter against the men in green, got off to a dream start and were 14-0 up inside the first four minutes
with tries from David Howells and scrumhalf Luke Baldwin.
It took just 90 seconds for Howells to cross the whitewash when Jack Harrison - one of just two starting survivors from the 13-13 draw in Dublin last season - sent Howells down the wing and he shrugged off two tackles on a 30-metre run to the line.
Baldwin's try was sheer opportunism, the solid England scrum giving the Blackheath No 9 the platform to race from halfway on an angled run to the corner.
Ulph converted both tries and was narrowly wide with his third effort to add the extras to Neale's first try, the full-back getting on the end of Tom Powell's pass after Baldwin had switched play right from a midfield ruck.
By then fly-half Keeshan had pulled back a penalty for the Irish clubs and they looked set to reduce the gap further when flanker Barry O'Mahony raced away but the pass from the No 10 was forward.
The error proved costly as Neale grabbed his second try just before halftime, his former England Under-20 team-mate Seb Jewell making the break to send the fullback clear for that 23-point halftime lead and the representative flagship of the County and Community game looked well set for victory.
However, Ireland started the second half better than they had the first, making the most of a lineout close to the England line with Shannon hooker Michael Essex rejoining the maul and being driven over.
By the 55th minute they were back in the game when winger Stephen Kelly hacked on a loose midfield ball and he was well clear as he dived on it between the posts to give Keeshan an easy conversion.
John Cleary followed suit when he was put away by Daragh O'Shea and when Kelly added his second in the 70th minute to reduce the gap to four points - Ulph having added a penalty - a tense final 10 minutes was in store.
But the Counties held out and they will head to Lille to face France Amateurs on March 19 on the back of a closely fought win.
England Counties XV: Frankie Neale (London Scottish); Sam Ulph (Esher), Jack Harrison (Tynedale), Seb Jewell (Esher), David Howells (London Scottish); James Brown (London Scottish), Luke Baldwin (Blackheath); John Williams (Tynedale), Joe Graham (Tynedale), Sam Heard (Redruth), Matt Owen (Macclesfield), Tom Bason (Blackheath, capt), Dan Legge (Cambridge), Darren Fox (Cambridge), Tom Powell (Cambridge). Replacements: Matt Riley (Sedgley Park, for Jewell 58), Matt Hall (Blaydon, for Graham 66), Tom Warren (Esher, for Heard 66), Steve Parsons (Harrogate, for Howells 66), Not used: Ben Harris (Huddersfield), Alex Nash (Rugby Lions), Tom Richardson (Stourbridge).
Scorers: Tries: Neale (2), Howells, Baldwin; Pen: Ulph; Cons: Ulph (3)
AIB Ireland Club XV: Daragh O'Shea (Clontarf RFC); John Cleary (Galwegians RFC), Eric Moloney (Dolphin RFC), Evan Ryan (Cork Constitution RC), Stephen Kelly (Shannon RFC); Barry Keeshan (Dolphin RFC), Sam Cronin (Dolphin RFC, capt), Martin Gately (Cork Constitution FC), Michael Essex (Shannon RFC), Simon Shawe (Ballymena RFC), Paul Huntly (Blackrock College RFC), Fergal Walsh (Shannon RFC), Richard Leyden (Old Belvedere RFC), Barry O'Mahony (Dolphin RFC), Frank Cogan (Cork Constitution FC). Replacements: Hugh Hogan (St. Mary's College RFC, for Cogan 61), Simon Crawford (Clontarf RFC, for Huntly 65), Aaron Dundon (Clontarf RFC, for O'Mahony 78). Not used: Christy Condon (Dolphin RFC), Cathal Sheridan (UL Bohemians RFC), Darragh Fitzpatrick (Blackrock College RFC), Sean Scanlon (University College Cork RFC).
Scorers: Tries: Kelly (2), Essex, Cleary; Pen: Keeshan; Con: Keeshan.
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