Maintaining Velocity

Ireland v Fiji - Match Preview (Maintaining Velocity)
Struggling To Contain Them: Ireland’s last meeting with Fiji may have been five years ago, but the fact that it took them a 72nd minute penalty to win it by a narrow margin lives long in the memory. Much like they did for that fixture, Ireland have selected a team for this weekend that doesn’t contain many first-choice players, and while that is certainly more of a risk against their visitors than it would be against the likes of Georgia or Romania, the Irish coaching ticket will be hoping for a test of their fringe players’ credentials similar to what they got in 2017.

Last weekend’s incredible victory over South Africa has taken a lot of pressure off Andy Farrell and his team for this November series, and as such, he now has the freedom to experiment with selection for this Saturday’s clash with Fiji. The retention of Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Caelan Doris, Stuart McCloskey, Mack Hansen and Robert Baloucoune ensures a degree of continuity, but otherwise, the squad has been rotated, and second-string players now have a chance to force their way into a team that are on a high.

Farrell isn’t the first Irish coach to throw caution to the wind with his selection against the Flying Fijians, and three uncapped players isn’t the riskiest move, but on the back of a remarkable victory over the Māori All Blacks in the summer and the South African clubs on the Emerging Ireland tour, the value of Ireland’s increased exposure of their fringe players to their southern hemisphere counterparts will hopefully become apparent for the Irish coaching ticket this weekend.

Framework & Flair

The main strength of the Pacific Island nations is, and always has been, their offloading in contact and Fiji are no exception. Their players have an innate ability to run on to the ball from deep, power through contact, and offload to another support runner to keep the ball alive, and are happy to do so from well inside their own half:

Normally, the best defensive measure for a team like this is to rush up into the space between players so as to block the passing lanes between them, but Vern Cotter has added a structure to their attack to complement their verve, and we have seen them use it against tougher opponents as a more controlled means of breaking down a defence via one-out carries, pull-back passes and layers in attack when line breaks and offloads don’t come as easily:

This makes defending against them trickier than it used to be. Previously, the main aim would be to stop their offloading game and momentum in attack by committing two tacklers to each carrier, one high and one low, in order to stop the offload, but if Ireland do that on Saturday, they will be taking numbers out of their defensive line, and if Fiji already have their attacking shape in place for the next phase and recycle the ball quickly, Ireland will be in trouble in the 15-metre channel.

On the other side of the ball, Fiji have made huge strides in their defensive system and discipline. In the past, their players had been prone to flying out of the line to make big hits, but a lack of synchronisation with the players around them, meant that there were often gaps to be exploited. Their defensive shape and speed of reorganisation often left a lot to be desired, too, with a porous defensive line and players sauntering back into place if they conceded a lot of ground.

This isn’t the case now, as they are much more patient in defence. Their line speed and aggression in contact remain formidable, but what is impressive about how they defend now is how they stay connected with one another, push out quickly if the ball goes beyond second-receiver and regroup and fold around the corner quickly once the tackle is made:

Their bad habits in defence did creep back in in their Pacific Nations Cup second-half collapse against Samoa, so consistency is an issue for them off the ball. This means that Ireland should get a bit more breathing room out wide for Mack Hansen and Robert Baloucoune to utilise their pace and finishing ability, especially with the space that should be created for them by the twin crash ball threat of Stuart McCloskey and Robbie Henshaw in midfield.

Outside of what they do in phase play, Fiji’s work up front came on in leaps and bounds in the Pacific Nations Cup under Jason Ryan. Their scrum has gone from being a weak point to an attacking weapon, and they are particularly aggressive and going after opposition tighthead props, surging forward on that side first in an attempt to get them to fold in or stand up:

They have exhibited some technically sound maul defence as well, with their forwards quick to form a counter-shove once the jumper comes to ground, and a tightly-compacted, aggressive shove denying opponents forward momentum in this phase of play:

Ryan’s departure to join the All Blacks’ coaching ticket is bound to affect Fiji’s overall forward play to an extent at some point, but at the same time, they aren’t going to forget everything they learned from him overnight.

Age-Old Flaws

Despite the improvements they have made in several facets of their game, Fiji still have some obvious weaknesses that haven’t been eradicated by Cotter just yet. Given that their players are explosive in contact and adept at passing out of it, they more inclined towards getting on ball and less concerned about hitting rucks and securing the ball.

This, combined with the fact that so many of their players come from Sevens where there is no competition at the breakdown, means that there can sometimes be a lack of urgency to their rucking:

When you add in rucking technique that can be far too upright in body positioning at times, there should be numerous jackal opportunities for Ireland in this game, and they would be wise to do so every chance the get, given how dangerous Fiji are with ball in hand.

As much as their Sevens background benefits Fiji in terms of skill set, pace and running lines, it also hinders their prowess when it comes to aerial contests, as these are not a feature of the seven-man code. Their back three seem to be quite vulnerable to high-hanging kicks down the touch-line, with bad angles and poor catching technique leading to mistakes on their part in this area:

Ireland hold on to the ball for much longer now than they did in the last World Cup cycle, but there is enough muscle memory from the previous regime for them to be effective in this area, as well as Mack Hansen and Robert Baloucoune having good skills in the air, so we can expect to see plenty of box-kicks from Jamison Gibson-Park in an attempt to get scrums in advantageous positions on the field.

Sticking To The Script

In spite of Fiji’s frailties when it comes to the fundamentals of the game, Ireland need to ensure that they don’t stray too far from their offloading, expansive game plan. The win over South Africa should put to bed any doubts over whether Ireland’s strategy works against bigger sides at least until they come up against France in the Six Nations, and even though it might play into the hands of Ireland’s opponents this Saturday, the same could be said for Ireland’s clash with Japan a year ago, and they won that game by a significant margin.

Admittedly, Ireland put out a full-strength side that day in order to gear up for the All Blacks the following week, but this Saturday isn’t exactly a dead rubber for them; if they lose, all of the positivity generated from their win over the Springboks will evaporate instantly, and the questions over Andy Farrell’s and Mike Catt’s coaching ability will rear their ugly heads again. As long as they take their visitors seriously (and Fiji are certainly a lot better than they looked against Scotland) and the new players take their chances well, that shouldn’t happen, but it may be a closer contest than Irish supporters are expecting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s