Tuesday 28 January 2020

Stroll in the Park does little to get juices flowing

Fractured Fijian front a poor barometer for our next generation's abilities, writes Neil Francis

A snooze button match played at below Rabo pace. A 53-0 thumping but a scoreline which is utterly inconsequential. The value for either side questionable and really all this fixture did was fulfil revenue streams and cash flow obligations.

Truthfully, this is a travelling road show for the Fijian fringe players in the hope that they get picked up by some of the Top 14 French sides or on this showing Pro Div 3.

The cliché goes that you can only play what is in front of you – that is of course if your opponents choose to stand in front of you. Outside of World Cup appearances and their own Pacific Championship, the structure of the modern game really has punished the way that Fiji try to perform. The minute's silence before the match showed Fiji at their most structured.

When you are operating in a sanitised environment it is very difficult to deconstruct Ireland's performance. Fiji's line speed was questionable and once their lumbering forwards came up in the line they left gaps the size of their loosehead's name (Yanuyanutawa). Even the most simple applications which you would traditionally associate with Fiji eluded them – the appreciation and timing of how to give and take a pass. Without any semblance of structure or tight game, it is very difficult to assess performances in the side that put 53 points on them.

I think it is important to look and see what happened earlier yesterday afternoon as the Springboks, Wallabies and All Blacks imposed their will and controlled games through speed of thought and a staggering array of physical domination. Game and all as England, Scotland and Italy were, they were subjugated by teams who, when they decided to put pressure on, the northern hemisphere teams simply could not react. The skills broke down under the pressure applied and that is why the hegemony continues.

Ireland's skills yesterday in Thomond also broke down but there was no pressure applied, how do you reconcile that? So if we promote better performers are we sure that they will look as good as they did yesterday? You don't need to answer that.

Of most pressing need to Ireland's cause is that we quite quickly produce two quality centres from somewhere. Yesterday we had the makings of something resembling a midfield. Darren Cave has had quite a number of opportunities before and has been unfortunate with the timing of some of his injuries. He might be just a half-metre short of pace for outside centre and sometimes he disappears for periods but there is no doubting his talent. He did nothing extraordinary yesterday yet it was good to see him fit and looking fresh. I suspect that his challenge to Keith Earls will come sooner rather than later.

Luke Marshall is somebody I identified as far back as the first match in the Aviva where an under-20 exhibition game was played. It is significant he has not had great opportunity with Ulster.

So in a clean room environment how good was he? Did his skills measure up? Just from some of the interventions in the line his pace is certainly of international standard. As a guy who played at outhalf for part of his career, he has the added capability of being able to kick intelligently and his execution is good. His distribution too off each hand is also pretty good. Physically he wasn't really tested yesterday and he is not the biggest centre in the world but he is determined and you sense that when he is pitted in against bigger players and you can use names like Florian Fritz, Wesley Fofana and Maxime Mermoz.

Kidney – quite out of character – has taken a gamble and bumped this 21-year-old right up the order. Whether he has the cojones to follow through on this act of extravagance remains to be seen. Marshall might not even get into the Ulster squad that plays Northampton in December.

I was interested to see how Paddy Jackson went too. You always got the sense that he looks a better player when he has Ruan Pienaar inside him or sometimes even Paul Marshall but now after Conor Murray's service Jackson, under no pressure, showed a fairly competent array of skills. His place kicking, even though he missed quite a few, looks casual yet composed and he strikes the ball very well. Is he a better player than Ian Madigan? I don't think so. Is he a better player than Ian Keatley? I'm not sure.

I remember watching David Humphries and Ronan O'Gara in their formative years and noticing how uncertain and unsure they were. What is sure is that Jackson will get better as he plays in games of higher intensity with more pressure applied. Whether physically he is strong enough to deal with something like the pressure applied by SANZA sides time will tell. The key for him is that he has been handed the opportunity and he has jumped ahead of guys who would be better all round players than him at this moment in time.

Iain Henderson we will take a rain-check but he has the potential to be the next Simon Easterby. Craig Gilroy showed all his attacking arsenal yesterday but there is a nagging suspicion about his defence.

Yes, he can tackle a fish supper but anything bigger, heavier or faster than that might present a problem, and I would suspect that next week McFadden, not as skilful or natural a runner as Gilroy but unquestionably a better defender, will get the nod if management decide to dispense with Andrew Trimble's services for the time being.

Eighty minutes against the supercharged Argentine Juan Imhoff will tell a tale.

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