An 18-point winning margin over a dangerous side is not to be sniffed at, especially when you put out a largely second-string team against them, but Ireland’s win over Fiji yesterday wasn’t exactly what their coaching ticket or supporters would have hoped for. They bounced back professionally after conceding an early try, but when you consider England’s evisceration of Japan the same afternoon or Italy putting almost 50 points on Samoa the week before, it does pale in comparison.
The injury stoppages, TMO reviews, high penalty count and brandishing of cards did contribute to the game not flowing as well as either side wanted, but when Albert Tuisue was given his marching orders, the expectation was that the game would open up completely, but it never came to pass. Ireland’s forward play was superb and there were some standout individual performances from Tadhg Furlong, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney and Cian Prendergast, but their multi-phase attack didn’t click as well as normal and they gave Fiji a little bit too much room to manoeuvre.
The Daily Grind
It was clear from early on in this game that Ireland’s video analysts identified the Fijian maul defence as a weakness, as their players went after it the first chance they got. It was a valid tactic as the visitors’ counter-maul was found wanting, but was notable about it was that Ireland opted to maul infield rather than towards the touch-line as they had done against the Springboks:
It could very well have been clever play on a preconceived notion on Ireland’s part; they would have known that Fiji would have recognised how well their touch-line angled maul worked against a vaunted Springbok pack, so they chose to go against form, but the initial setup and tight binding from the Irish forwards were impressive nonetheless.
When the maul didn’t carry them over the whitewash, Ireland were relentless with their ground-and-pound tactics, sending their dynamic forwards careening into the Fijian defence until eventually the pressure told:
It’s quite common in these situations to get held up over the line or concede a turnover, but Ireland were miserly in their retention of possession once they were close to the line and having three explosive carriers in their starting back row was a huge fillip for them in this regard.
Difficulties At The Extremities
The downside to Ireland spending so much time hammering away at Fiji through the forwards is that it reduced the amount of times that their backs got hands on the ball, which inevitably led to handling errors. Their revamped teamsheet meant that continuity was always going to be difficult for Ireland in this fixture, but seeing some of their more established players make basic errors was highly frustrating:
Execution out wide was an issue for Ireland’s backs in defence, too, with Fiji getting players away down the touch-line on more than one occasion:
To be fair, this is only the second time that Garry Ringrose and Robert Baloucoune have played together, and it’s only Ringrose’s and Stuart McCloskey’s third game together in midfield, un familiarity is a factor.
That being said, injury rates in the modern game are high, so players are expected to step in with minimal rustiness, and although the ability of the Fijian players to get the ball out of contact even when Irish defenders had made the right decision and tackled properly must be noted as well, the manner in which they broke the Irish defence at times won’t have pleased Andy Farrell. He was particularly scathing in his post-match comments, and when you look at Ireland’s defensive lapses alone, you can understand why, given that that was his forte.
Ireland’s error count in this game in general was poor, and cheap penalties prevented them from having the long periods of possession that they usually enjoy. They did string some promising periods of multi-phase play together, only to let Fiji off the hook through a mix of under-resourced breakdowns, bad body positioning and ill-timed clear-outs, on top of being overzealous in this area in defence as well:
It’s disappointing when you look back at how efficient their breakdown work has become since Paul O’Connell has come onboard, and even though having forwards who haven’t played together can cause a lack of cohesion in any aspect of their play, high-quality rucking is the foundation that multi-phase attack is built on.
On the other side of the ball, they were repeatedly pinged for being offside at the breakdown and off kicks, allowing Fiji access back into the game despite knowing how lethal they are even with limited possession:
Every team pushes the boundaries, and straying offside tends to go hand-in-hand with being aggressive defensively, but Ireland put unnecessary pressure on themselves by giving Mathieu Raynal reasons to blow the whistle.
What makes these errors all the more irritating is that a lot of them came in the third quarter when Fiji were down to 13 men, and the absence of a cutting edge when they have a numbers advantage is a worrying trend for Ireland. It might sound odd complaining about their discipline when Fiji conceded 14 penalties across the 80 minutes, but the above turnovers were a big part of why Ireland couldn’t put their opponent to the sword.
Eye On The Ball
In many ways, though, having a lot to improve on is better than a complete walkover because it’s hard to know where to go from the latter scenario, and the minutes racked up by Jeremy Loughman, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Cian Prendergast, Nick Timoney, Max Deegan, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Stuart McCloskey, Robert Baloucoune and Jimmy O’Brien will be valuable down the line, not to mention giving Jack Conan a start in order to keep the back row competition between him and Peter O’Mahony alight.
An enormous scoreline combined with Australia’s shock loss to Italy yesterday could well have instilled a sense of complacency in Ireland heading into next Saturday, so having mistakes and shortcomings to reflect on may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Five tries from 59% possession and 69% territory doesn’t make for pleasant reading, and there’s no chance of a repeat of those kinds of stats against the Wallabies next weekend.
Dave Rennie’s side will be smouldering in the wake of their defeat at the hands of the Azzurri, and Ireland will probably spend significant periods of next Saturday night trying to weather a storm, so they can’t afford to be wasteful with the opportunities that they do get. Choice words from Andy Farrell plus Johnny Sexton’s return should sharpen the minds, and Ireland’s concentration levels will need to be high if they are to get the better of a talented side that will be looking to atone.