Ireland edged Fiji 23-20 on Saturday in a game that won’t have impressed their coaching ticket. There’s always a certain amount of scrappiness that goes with putting out a second-string side (especially one where five players were making their Tests debuts), but Ireland were reliant on the impact of their bench to get them out of jail in this one. Tadhg Furlong’s obliteration of Kalivate Tawake in the scrum and Cian Healy’s astonishing dynamism around the park gave their team the platform to secure the points that they needed to see themselves home, and if not for rank Fijian ill-discipline in the last 10 minutes, the visitors could have secured a historic win.
“Lisa, If You Don’t Like Your Job, You Don’t Strike, You Just Go In Everyday And Do It Really Half-Assed”
Efficient breakdown work and high-quality aerial competition are the foundation stones of Joe Schmidt-coached sides, and Ireland were found wanting on both fronts. There were several rucks where they had enough numbers to keep hold of the ball, but between not clearing out cleanly enough and not standing their ground when Fiji counter-rucked, they turned the ball over seven times:
A lot of Ireland’s inability to take full advantage of their winger’s talents under the high ball stemmed from poor box-kicking from Kieran Marmion. The Connacht scrum-half had a game to forget, but if he has any intention of displacing Conor Murray, he will have to be more accurate from the boot:
Ireland didn’t get anywhere near as much of a return from putting the ball up in the air as they should have, and even though the kick-chase wasn’t great at times, it didn’t help Marmion’s case that the best box-kick of the game came from Luke McGrath.
The one thing Ireland had to avoid doing was play loose against a Fijian side that are happy to run the ball from anywhere, and in that respect, there were an inordinate amount of risky offloads from the home team. This is the kind of play that Fiji thrive on, and Ireland played to their opponents’ strengths by throwing 50/50 offloads when they got in behind:
Ireland opted for quick ball off-the-top from lineouts, which seemed ill-judged on first-viewing, but there was an element of double-bluffing to this tactic. Schmidt knew that Fiji would have expected the maul from Ireland (given that it is a strength of Ireland’s and a weakness of Fiji’s) and would have loaded their defence against it, so doing the opposite threw something unexpected at them. This, coupled with the fact that Ireland’s maul didn’t function well, made not using it a sensible choice:
The technique from Ireland’s forwards in the above example is nothing to write home about, and nearly every time they attempted a maul, it stagnated and generated little or no momentum, whereas quick ball into midfield allowed Stuart McCloskey to get beyond gain line. Although it showed good tactical awareness, Ireland upping the pace contributed to the game becoming unstructured, which suited Fiji down to the ground.
Ireland’s lack of control in this game was epitomised by a blunder in the 67th minute, straight after Ian Kealey’s first successful shot at goal:
At 20-17 up, 14 minutes left on the clock, and the opposition’s confidence beginning to dissipate, Ireland should have been looking at putting the game to bed. However, a drop in concentration led to a series of phases that Fiji scored a three-pointer off to go level. All Ireland had to do was take this restart cleanly, go through a ruck or two and then clear their lines, but a mix-up proved to be costly.
It wasn’t the only time in the game where the ability to execute the basics eluded Ireland. The transfer of the ball from the base of the scrum to the 9 is a really simple thing to do unless you’re being driven backwards, but with the degree of comfort that they had in the scrum, Ireland shouldn’t have had any trouble getting the ball away from the feet of their number eight, yet they shot themselves in the foot more than once in this facet:
Schmidt deserves credit for selecting a host of non-frontline players (Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney used to be ridiculed by the media and supporters alike for not experimenting with their squad in games like this), but outside of Darren Sweetnam and Andrew Conway, few performed well enough to warrant further selection. Joey Carbery lacerated the Fijian defence regularly, stood up to the big Fijian ball carriers in defence, and put the ball deftly in behind when nothing else was on. Ian Keatley kicked Ireland into the right areas of the field in the final quarter, as well as being accurate from the tee, and the Munster out-half looks to be a useful bench option going forward.
Ireland’s centres were destructive with ball in hand, but not quite the wrecking balls that people had anticipated. McCloskey in particular needs to improve his ball security in contact and wayward offloads, because these are the reasons why Schmidt is reluctant to pick him. Ultan Dillane and Jack Conan were dynamic, and Kieran Treadwell displayed good physicality at tight when he came on, but Andrew Porter failed to have the same impact in the loose that he has had for Leinster this season, despite having a fine outing at scrum-time. Rob Herring’s carrying was decent, but his lineout throwing started to falter at a time when Ireland needed to control the ball, and Jordi Murphy was disappointing.
Schmidt spoke in the post-match press conference about how Ireland were in an ideal position just before half-time, being 17-3 up with a lineout deep in Fiji’s half. Instead of converting the chance into a score, a handling error from Dillane let Fiji score a breakaway try through Henry Seniloli, and you have to wonder if a mistake like this (and the missed tackles that followed) would have been tolerated if the likes of Rory Best, Seán O’Brien, Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton were on the pitch.
Even if it did, they would have ensured that their team grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck in the third quarter rather than let Fiji score another try (albeit an intercept). These are the hard questions that have to be asked by Ireland’s coaching ticket when deciding if a player deserves to be involved in bigger games or not, and there won’t be too many who lined out on Saturday forcing their way into the Ireland’s team sheet against Argentina after their off-colour performances. There’s definitely a kernel of truth to the notion that those players learned more by being put to the test by Fiji than if they had won by a big margin, but it has asked if any of them can be trusted in crucial games in the near future.