Schmidt learns more about Ireland’s youngsters from struggle against Fiji
Only Conway and Ruddock look strong candidates for promotion to first-choice team
Ireland’s Cian Healy gets tacked by Fiji’s Dominiko Waqaniburotu (ground) and Nikola Matawalu (right) during the Autumn International at the Aviva StadiumPhotograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
In the heel of the hunt this was always likely to be tougher than the odds suggested, and with so many auditioning for main roles from the Irish supporting cast Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff probably learned more from this being a struggle than had it been a romp.
As befits the first Fijian side to register two wins over Tier One teams in the same calendar year, namely Scotland and Italy, the Pacific Nations Cup champions brought plenty of physicality to the collisions and the breakdown, as well as their capacity to outflank the Irish defence from anywhere with their trademark running and offloading skills.
Ireland’s scrum was good, so too their lineout, and for much of the first-half, as they scored three tries without reply to move 17-3 ahead and had another ruled out so was their general play. But they lost their way a tad, with their clearing out at ruck time unusually awry for an Irish side, and after allowing Fiji back into the game they tightened up before some impact off the bench steered them through some choppy waters.
Afterwards, Joe Schmidt had no regrets about playing such an experimental side. “You just hope you wouldn’t concede that try before half-time, and go in 17-3 and keep that confidence going into the second half.
“But, in a way, that try was really good for us. We saw guys tightening up, the amount of turnovers we conceded in that first half; we conceded 11, they conceded 10, it was a turnover-a-thon, and that’s always dangerous. Of the two teams, who’s more dangerous when it becomes a free for all? I think with the athletes and experience they have, they’d be a real risk for us.”
The most disappointing aspect of all was the fractured forearm which ended Joey Carbery’s game and Guinness Series, although considering he’d only played five minutes at outhalf this season, this has to be tempered by the manner in which he played.
There was the side-stepping, acceleration and try-scoring pass for Darren Sweetnam, another break which was augmented by a stunning one-handed offload to Stuart McCloskey, and the general poise of his game and variety of his kicking and passing. He’s brave too, taking the hits that invariably come with well-timed passes against the Pacific Islanders, so it was such a shame to see him go off injured after taking yet another big hit.
His immense talent is unquestionable. It’s just a case of him acquiring game time.
Stuart McCloskey made some good hard yards, and the centre also used his footwork and passing skills in the build-up to Kearney’s try, as did Ultan Dilllane, who will also have pleased Schmidt in pulling the ball back in rather than forcing an offload at the end of one gallop.
Ireland still need to develop their offloading game but it was interesting to hear Schmidt reel off the culprits – McCloskey, Jack McGrath and Andrew Conway – for the offloads which didn’t go to hand and instead gave Fiji turnover ball. McCloskey’s would possibly have gone to hand in an Ulster jersey, so familiar are they with his ability to free his hands beyond the tackle.
Yet Devin Toner apart, of the rest of this starting team, only Conway and Rhys Ruddock look like strong candidates for promotion to the senior team any time soon. Having re-invented himself as a fine all-round fullback cum winger, Conway’s confidence is now soaring after a run of fine form, and a run of games for province and country.
Out of contract at the end of the season, and attracting interest from French and English clubs, his value is rising too as he flips seamlessly between wing and fullback. Aside from his customary bravery, he used his footwork and passing to create Dave Kearney’s try, countered cleverly to release Sweetnam for a run and was unlucky not to score off his own grubber when the ball veered onto the corner flag and over the touchline. After playing the second half of the win over England, next Saturday will be his fourth start in Ireland’s five games since then.
A lot of confidence
“He got a lot of confidence from playing the full second half against England in what was a pretty big win for us,” said Schmidt “and he did really well, made an early tackle on Ben Te’o when he was in the air. He made an error at one other stage, but you could see his energy and I think other people feed off that.
“I thought he brought the same energy here, and he brought it last week. He’s got the acceleration, his skill level has improved from the time I knew him at Leinster. I also remember him playing in a Pro12 final we won at Leinster and he played in an Amlin Cup final as well and scored a slashing try. It’s not like I haven’t known Andrew for a long time.
”He’s had his own battle with Darren Sweetnam, Keith Earls, Ronan O’Mahony, Alex Wootton has gone really well this year at Munster as well – he’s had to fight his way through those guys and he’s even in a contest with Zeebs at full-back as well.”
“His versatility has been really impressive. He’s played wide at left-wing and at fullback. He played wing and fullback for us in Japan as well, I think he’s up to his fifth Test and based on how he’s going he’ll be keen to get some more.”
Keen, and equipped for more too.
Scoring sequence: 6 mins Sweetnam try 5-0; 21 mins Volavola pen 5-3; 23 mins Kearney try 10-3; 34 mins Conan try, Carbery con 17-3; 40 mins Seniloli try, Volavola con 17-10; (half-time 17-10); 45 T Nagusa try, Volavola con 17-17; 66 mins Keatley pen 20-17; 69 mins Volavola pen 20-20; 73 mins Keatley pen 23-20.
IRELAND: A Conway (Munster); D Sweetnam (Munster), C Farrell (Munster), S McCloskey (UIster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Carbery (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht); J McGrath (Leinster), R Herring (Ulster), A Porter (Leinster), U Dillane (Connacht), D Toner (Leinster), R Ruddock (Leinster, capt), J Murphy (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster). Replacements: J Tracy (Leinster) for Herring, C Healy (Leinster) for J McGrath, T Furlong (Leinster) for Porter (all 56 mins), CJ Stander (Munster) for Ruddock (61 mins), K Treadwell (Ulster) for Toner, I Keatley (Munster) for Carbery (both 64 mins), R Henshaw (Leinster) for Farrell (65 mins), L McGrath (Leinster) for Marmion (77 mins).
FIJI: K Murimurivalu (La Rochelle); T Nagusa (Montpellier), J Vatabua (Pau), L Botia (La Rochelle), N Nadolo (Montpellier); B Volavola (North Harbour), H Seniloli (Timisoara); C Ma’afu (Northampton), T Tuapati (Provence), M Saulo (London Irish), A Ratuniyarawa (Northampton), L Nakarawa (Racing 92), D Waqaniboruto (Brive), A Qera (Agen), N Nagusa (Aurillac). Replacements: N Matawalu (Glasgow) for Seniloli (48 mins), P Ravai (Bordeaux/Begles) for Ma’afu (57 mins), K Tawake (Drua) for Saulo (59 mins), V Goneva (Newcastle) for T Nagusa (60 mins), S Nabou (Biarritz) for N Nagusa (64 mins), S Koto (Macon) for Tuapati, P Yato (Clermont) for Ratuniyarawa (both 70 mins), A Tikoirotuma (London Irish) for Vatabua (73 mns).