Tony Ward: Fiji are driven by disrespect
The heat is on Kidney, but Fiji have every right to be angry by lack of Test status
Published 17/11/2012 | 05:00
Damned if he does and damned if he doesn't – such is the lot of Ireland head coach Declan Kidney. If Ireland win comfortably against Fiji today people will say, "well it's only to be expected."
If they struggle over the line by way of a tepid performance, the calls for Kidney's head will start to grow again. If the hosts lose, there will be enormous pressure on both the IRFU and its head coach – and it doesn't even bear thinking about if we were then to come up short against the Pumas in seven days' time.
It's all a far cry from the Grand Slam high of 2009, but in the cut-throat world of international rugby, winning is everything.
Kidney has picked a young and inexperienced line-up for today's Thomond Park clash, but it is one backboned by a half dozen older heads for what should have been a full-blown international.
The contractual arrangement with Aviva that commits the IRFU to staging all senior rugby internationals at the Aviva Stadium may be legally binding, but it is hugely flawed.
Fiji's last three visits here (1995, 2002 and 2009) were full-cap, official internationals, but they are deemed unworthy of that status this time around.
The last uncapped international between the countries took place at Lansdowne Road in 1985, when Mick Doyle's Triple Crown-winning team scraped home on a 16-15 scoreline.
It is not the fault of Kidney, Jamie Heaslip or the Irish players, but I suspect the pre-match Cibi (the Fijian equivalent of the Haka) will be carried out with a little more venom than usual today. The Fijians will feel slighted and will be hungry to put on a show.
We've failed to recognise the full Test status of the 14th-ranked rugby-playing nation in the world – that's just six places below us – and I know which side will be adopting a siege mentality this afternoon.
What if last week's opponents South Africa (currently ranked No 2 in the world) downgraded our next Test in, say, Potchefstroom to 'A' grade because SARFU feared they wouldn't fill Ellis Park? How would we feel about that?
Regardless of such distractions, Ireland need to focus on the task at hand. It is a team short on experience, but high in potential, with so many Ulster young guns deservedly recognised for their excellent form of late. Six Ulster players start, but it should be seven, as the choice at scrum-half is wrong in my opinion. I have nothing against Conor Murray, but what can this Irish management learn about him today that they don't already know?
Paul Marshall – with the notable exception of Ruan Pienaar – has been the form scrum-half this season in the Pro12. He should be starting.
In a sense, he should be grateful for small mercies, because had both first-choice scrum-halves (Eoin Reddan and Murray) been available, I suspect their selection would have been a formality and the Ulster man would have been left back in Belfast altogether.
Even the argument that Ireland need an experienced head on the pitch to look after Paddy Jackson (whose selection we embrace) doesn't add up, on the basis that pairing provincial half-backs, who train together day-in and day-out, carries little risk.
Marshall knows Jackson's game inside out and vice versa. With Darren Cave and Luke Marshall combining in midfield, Fergus McFadden must feel that, under this current management, he'll never get a good shot at playing centre.
But true to form, he will give it everything he has for the green jersey down that outside channel.
Mike Ross brings experience to the right side of the front-row against a powerful looking Fijian scrummaging unit.
Heaslip and Donncha O'Callaghan will provide leadership up front, where their inclusion alongside Ross and Murray means there's an experienced presence in all three lines of the scrum and at half-back.
Ireland will also be armed with an exciting pair of flankers in Iain Henderson and the dogged John Muldoon.
Kidney has some heavy artillery on the bench, just in case he needs a 'get-out-of-jail card' at some stage.
The South Sea Islanders have a tendency to tear into their opponents in the early stages (as we saw at Twickenham last week), but you'd expect Ireland to have enough power to close the game out in the final quarter.
Kidney may have to bring on the cavalry on the hour mark to seal the deal, but a good performance from the newcomers and a reasonably comfortable win would represent a decent day at the office.
Defeat, or an unconvincing victory, and the pressure on both team and coach will ramp up significantly, especially with the dangerous Pumas waiting in the long grass.
Take Ireland to do the business in Thomond, but don't be surprised if there are a number of uncomfortable twists and turns along the way.
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