PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy is back with his 2018 Autumn Rugby Series preview of an experimental Irish side facing a Fiji side fresh from a defeat by a resurgent Italy. It may not have the edge or profile of a clash against the Boks but expect a more open affair
So, first up, I’m sure I’m not alone in not predicting such a cakewalk for Ireland against the Springboks in the 2018 Autumn Rugby Series clash last Saturday. The reasons for the facile win have been well covered elsewhere but it was good to see Joe and the panel staying grounded regarding the margin of victory. If we meet South Africa in the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, they won’t be anything as poor as the side we saw in the Aviva this time around.
On to Fiji and the eyebrow-raising 13 changes that Joe Schmidt has made for the 2018 Autumn Rugby Series visit of the free spirited South Sea islanders. After the way the 2015 RWC fizzled out against Argentina, there was a general consensus that the squad depth had been shown up. In some ways Joe’s hand has been forced by injuries, retirements and the Lions Tour but it does feel that the selection is a key milestone on the journey to creating a fully competitive squad for RWC 2019. The squad should take great belief from this and it will create unprecedented competition for places, especially when you see the quality that didn’t even make the Autumn Series squad. The message being sent out widely is that if you play well at provincial/club level, anyone has a chance of making it.
In terms of the key selections themselves, up front Joe and the managerial team have given some experienced campaigners a chance to also prove their form and leadership skills. Jack McGrath had a really strong Lions tour but has struggled since and is under pressure for his place in the Leinster & Irish sides. He’ll have the bit between his teeth for this opportunity to remind everyone why he has been a starter.
In the second row, Devin Toner has been reinstated to lend experience and lineout leadership despite the many calls for James Ryan to start. Big Dev is the ideal mentor for Ryan and still has plenty to give Ireland before the next generation take over. He is a smart lineout strategist, having benefited from his time with Paul O’Connell and will be looking to give Ireland the strong platform to play their game against the Fijians.
In the backline, it’s all about combinations and whether the young guns can control and execute a gameplan against opponents who will thrive on any structural or accuracy weaknesses.
Joey Carbery has been given the 10 jersey in a further indicator that Joe sees him as the heir apparent to Johnny Sexton at outhalf. We all know about the ability of the Leinster man but after a mixed Summer tour, this is a big test to prove that progression is happening.
In the centre, Joe has gone with undoubtedly the physically biggest pairing ever to start for Ireland. Both Ulster’s Stuart Mc Closkey and Munster’s Chris Farrell are arguably similar players and it will be intriguing to see how they match up as a combination. They will need to help Joey Carbery with controlling the game and will both be called on regularly to deliver the game breaking hard yards in the middle of the park to tie Fiji into a structured game. They’ll be expected to do all the basics (break the gainline, lead a hard defensive line etc.) but Joe will be watching for the quality of passing, speed of thought and more to see if either can threaten Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki or a returning Gary Ringrose for a starting role.
In the back three, it’s a really big game for the starters, for varying reasons. First up they are all against massive men and are going to have to win their one-on-one challenges in the wider channels. They’ll be counting on the centres leading a hardline and ensuring slow, messy ball gets to the wings. One thing is for sure, that if you let these Fijians break the line, you’ll be in big trouble.
For Munster men, Darren Sweetnam and Andrew Conway, they have a great chance to back up the positive performances in the 2018 Autumn Rugby Series game against South Africa. It is possible that full back is now the one position in the Irish squad that lacks long term depth so Conway has a great opportunity to stake a claim to cover that. Sweetnam is a fine footballer too and this is his chance to really push hard for a 6 Nations squad berth if not more. For Dave Kearney on the other wing, after struggling to match the form that had him as solid starter for Ireland a few years back, he’ll really motivated to leave his mark on the game.
In terms of what to expect from the game itself, Ireland need to control the structure of the game from the off. The management team will want to see the side build via a dominance up front, with a set piece orientated game designed to frustrate the Fijians. With their Super Rugby experience and 7s pedigree, the Fijians will want a multi phase, unstructured game, with the arrow head of Leone Nakarawa’s offload game backed up by Nadolo and Nagusa on the wings. We can expect Ireland to stay focussed on building a controlled lead for the first 50-60 mins, at which point, with the introduction of fresh legs from the bench, we can expect Ireland to pull away for a convincing win of 22+ points margin.
Enjoy the game and the occasion, whether you’re going to the Aviva or watching on TV.
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