A fine chance for Ireland's young guns to take aim at a starting place
Ireland v Fiji:Whatever about not affording this game Test status, a break from the norm to pitch up in Thomond Park for the first time in four years with a remodelled team heavily infused by youth may be no bad thing.
Strictly speaking, the result of this evening’s encounter won’t end or extend Ireland’s five- match losing streak in Tests, but a win, and an authoritative one at that, would be a welcome shot in the arm.
Akin to Fiji themselves, this game is a one-off in many respects, with one eye cast to a future beyond next week. In style and make-up, it’s hard to envisage this encounter with the Flying Fijians having much in common with the outing against the Springboks, nor that it will have huge relevance to next week’s clash with Los Pumas.
“If anything is pertinent to next week, it’s that people can impress for next week and be part of next week’s solution,” maintained Les Kiss after yesterday’s captain’s run out. Fergus McFadden and Craig Gilroy might possibly put pressure on Andrew Trimble although elsewhere the other 11 players called into the team will be hard-pressed to shift any of last week’s incumbents.
The selection of Mike Ross to start again at tighthead rather than have a longer look at Michael Bent suggests the management were less than thrilled with the performance of Ross last week, when he was called ashore after conceding a costly couple of scrum penalties.
The need for strong basics has been re-enforced by the mantra-like demand to impose more structure, and while this runs the risk of Ireland becoming too constrained, the conventional wisdom that the Fijians would prefer an unstructured affair resembling sevens is well founded.
All week long Anthony Foley has been re-enforcing the dangers in giving up the ball cheaply anywhere on the pitch, or as Kiss put it, to squeeze the game by minimizing turnover ball, missed tackles and easy offloads, because the Fijians instinctively see space as well as anyone and can open up a team in the blink of an eye with a half-break, offload or chip kick.
“We want to up the tempo when we want to and when we need to,” said Kiss. “It’s not about a frivolous style of upping the tempo for the sake of it. It’s having a controlled ambition, to be able to let the players find out their talent at this level.”
Given nine of the Irish side have just 14 full caps between them, the eagerness to impress should be palpable, regardless of age or shirt number. John Muldoon has been handed a relatively unfamiliar openside role, but as the thrice capped 29-year-old noted yesterday, he made his Connacht debut at number seven in an end-of-season friendly against Munster ten seasons ago.
“I’d wear number 10. I dont think Id have the skill set to wear the number 10 jersey but it doesn’t matter to me. A lot of the lads are looking forward to bringing in their provincial form with them. I’m no different. I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he said.
Nor can one imagine Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall, who like to take the ball to the gain line, will play as if in tactical straitjackets. Thus, the notion that Ireland will be too constrained seems unlikely, for if this remodelled and eager young side demonstrate the same enthusiasm that has had all the coaching staff singing their praises, it should be an enjoyable.
The hope is that a ‘walk-up’ crowd will swell the near 15,000 advance ticket sales to about 17,000 or maybe more. “I think it’s a real good opportunity to come out and see young guys pull on a green jersey and you’d like to think they’ll acquit themselves well to wear it again more often,” said Kiss. “So I encourage people to come out and have a look at this match. There’s some exciting young players and there’s some exciting older players as well.”
Fiji might have had a couple of tries in a strong opening quarter at Twickenham last week, notably after a surging break through the fringe English defence by Api Naikatini, one of their stand-out performers who today reverts to lock. Whereupon, admittedly, without the confidence that would have been generated had they taken one of their chances, Fiji fell away badly in a 54-12 defeat.
That was a full-strength English side in front of an 82,000 capacity crowd, and given this is much closer to an Ireland A side the likelihood is they will struggle to win so emphatically. They do have the insurance policy of a strong bench, where Mike McCarthy has replaced Donnacha Ryan after the latter was ruled out with flu.
That bench includes six of last week’s starters and the degree to which they are used, and the timing of their entry, will be a barometer of how well or otherwise the starting Irish XV are performing. The lesser and the lighter, the better, but it would be no surprise if Jonny Sexton, Simon Zebo and other heavyweights are required to ultimately help Ireland pull away.
How they match up
1985 – Ireland 16 Fiji 15
1995– Ireland 44 Fiji 8
2002 – Ireland 64 Fiji 17
2009 – Ireland 41 Fiji 6
Betting (Paddy Power):
1/66 – Ireland
66/1 – Draw
14/1 – Fiji
Handicap odds (Fiji +24 pts)
10/11 – Ireland
22/1 – Draw
10/11 – Fiji
Forecast: Ireland to win, if not to beat the handicap.
How they line out
Ireland: R Strauss, C Healy, M Bent, D Ryan, C Henry, P Marshall, J Sexton S Zebo.
Fiji: T Talemaitoga, Ma Saulo, S Somoca, A Ratuniyarawa, K Bola, Saularadid/R Fatiaki, T Matanavou.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales).