Ireland’s coaching ticket have already strengthened the depth of their squad earlier this year by selecting numerous inexperienced internationals to play against U.S. and Japan in June, and nearly all of them gave more than a good account of themselves. What will be of most interest is whether that experience has given them the confidence to beat a bigger team like Fiji. If they can do that, and continue making strides every time Ireland have a series of games, then they will push for a squad place at RWC 2019.
There’s always an element of the unknown when coming up against a side that you don’t play regularly (especially with a matchday 23 full of Test neophytes), but a number of Ireland’s players will be familiar with some of Fiji’s squad from facing them at club level. Leone Nakarawa was the best player on the park when Glasgow beat Munster in the 2015 Pro12 final; Nikola Matawalu has been a thorn in the side of Irish provincial teams in during the last few seasons (taking Leinster’s defence apart no more than two weeks ago); Nemani Nadolo was unplayable when the eastern province met Montpellier in the first round of the Champions Cup; and Asaeli Tikoirotuma impressed for Harlequins when Matt O’Connor’s Leinster played them in the same competition back in 2014.
With a large amount of their squad coming from a 7s background, Fiji are adept at offloading and support play. Even though their players ply their trade in different parts of the world, they still have an innate ability to read each other’s intentions, run from deep and anticipate where and when the pass will arrive. Once they get so much as a half-break, the support runners start flooding through the gaps, and it can be difficult to halt their progress:
The Engine Room
Although playing 7s instills valuable traits into its players, such as high skill levels, attacking vision, quality footwork, it also means that certain skills that are vital in 15s get left undeveloped. With no lineouts, minimal tactical kicking and scrums being far less competitive in 7s, the nuts-and-bolts stuff that can often decide the outcome of a contest in the fifteen-a-side game tend to be weak points in players who started off in the seven-man code. Fiji’s scrum in particular has faltered against the northern hemisphere sides, and they had a tough day at the coal face against Italy:
Andrew Porter’s move to tighthead prop hasn’t fully taken yet, which is understandable; at 21, he is in his infancy as a front row forward and scrummaging on the tighthead side is vastly different to the loosehead side. With a British and Irish Lion alongside him, though, Ireland could manage to develop an edge in this facet of the game, and the experience of playing in the no. 3 jersey against an international side will speed up his progress no end, and he might be a contender for a bench spot against top-tier sides by 2019.
In the absence of Niall Scannell, Rob Herring can show Joe Schmidt that he can do just as good a job as the Munster man at backing up Rory Best. Scannell is Ireland’s starting-hooker-in-waiting, but Herring is potentially a viable bench option if Best doesn’t make it as far as 2019. His lineout throwing has always been consistent and more of the same will be needed if he wants to earn a place in a team like Schmidt’s Ireland, where the lineout is their preferred try-scoring platform. Fiji, on the other hand, have struggled in that department, and their lineouts have malfunctioned badly due to inaccurate throwing and mistiming of the lift:
Devin Toner was immense against the Springboks at tight and in the loose at the weekend, and while Ultan Dillane hasn’t been on top-form this season, the two complement one another well, and Kieran Treadwell has the opportunity to measure himself against the form lock in Europe this season. Around the park, Ireland’s second row will have their hands full with Leone Nakarawa, but if they can secure their own throws, Ireland should get a decent return from the maul:
Ireland’s maul was excellent this time last year, but it only functioned properly in fits and starts in the Six Nations, and with wholesale personnel changes to Ireland’s starting pack from that tournament (as well as units who have never played together), it may not be the dominant force that Joe Schmidt or Simon Easterby would like it to be. Nonetheless, when you consider the technical problems that Fiji have in this area, it’s definitely worth targeting at least a couple of times throughout the game.
Rhys Ruddock’s technical nous and grunt work have been crucial to Leinster’s mauling efforts this season, and one would imagine that is exactly why he has been selected, not to mention his leadership qualities in a side of Test newcomers. Jack Conan, too, is a good choice for hard graft, and with the back row Ireland are fielding, and the nature of the tactics their opposition are known for deploying, we can expect to see plenty of one-out, hard-carrying tight to the ruck.
Darren Sweetnam has been one of Ireland’s most proficient wingers under the high ball for over a year now. There are other elements to his game, (Munster have been using him as a distributor more and more often this season), but against a back three who are aerially suspect, he will be used mainly to contest high-hanging kicks from his half-backs. The same can be said for Dave Kearney and Ireland are likely to have a clear advantage in the air:
Outside of their set-piece and aerial failings, Fiji’s biggest weakness is their passive midfield defence. In the below example, Italy’s ruck ball isn’t particularly quick, and Fiji have enough time to get their players into position, but a lack of synchronisation, slow line speed and abysmal tackling attempts from the players at 10, 12 and 13 let Italy exploit an overlap on the edge:
If Stuart McCloskey and Chris Farrell get quick, front foot ball to work with against this type of defending, their physicality could prove to be too much for the Fijian midfield to withstand. Fiji have a propensity for narrowing up on the open side whenever they are on the back foot, and Ireland will have room to manoeuvre out wide on second-phase if they can get their big centres over the gain line off set-pieces:
Paint By Numbers
The best thing Ireland can do against Fiji is use the same tactics that Munster used against Racing 92 in round 2 of the Champions Cup, and keep things as tight and structured as possible. The kick-lineout-maul strategy nullified a lot of the strengths of a pack of huge men with soft hands, and Ireland’s upcoming opposition play a similar brand of rugby. A rainy day doesn’t make for an entertaining game, but wet conditions would suit Ireland down to the ground, and a win against a big team will be invaluable for a group of young players who are short of experience at this level.
Ideally, this game would progress from one set-piece to another for Ireland, with as many midfield crashes off first-phase from McCloskey and Farrell as possible. With Josua Tuisova’s poor kicking out of hand, Ireland should have no shortage of lineouts in the Fiji half if they kick to him repeatedly with an organised chase. Schmidt has been criticised in the past for not letting his players offload, but in this case, it would be wise for them to go route one. If the game becomes any way unstructured, Fiji’s continuity will be taxing for a defence composed of untested combinations.
After getting a win, the most important thing to be taken from this weekend will be the performances from the less experienced players, and whether those performances merit further selection down the road. One bad performance doesn’t mean that a player shouldn’t be picked again; some take several Tests to acclimatise to the higher standards of international rugby, but this Saturday will give Schmidt a better idea of who is worth investing more time in with a view towards 2019.