Sunday 18 August 2019

Flying Fijians could make life difficult for young Irish outfit

Inexperienced home side are in for tough test against Islanders at the Aviva Stadium

Andrew Porter. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Andrew Porter. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

History tells us that this will be a comfortable win for Ireland against a team they have traditionally beaten well.

The bookmakers are backing that theory, offering a 25-point head-start to Joe Schmidt's team despite the lack of experience across the board and the rising stock of the Fijians.

The Islanders lost to Italy in Sicily last weekend, but their 2017 record under coach John McKee is not to be sniffed at.

They were competitive against a strong Australia in Melbourne in June, before they beat Italy and Scotland at home and won the Pacific Championship. Having won Olympic sevens gold in 2016, they're targeting a World Cup quarter-final in the XVs game in 2019.

McKee's team features a who's who of Top 14 talent including a pair of free-scoring Montpellier wingers in Nemani Nadolo and Timoci Nagusa and Europe's most exciting forward Leone Nakarawa.

Their set-piece is decent and if they can get good possession, their game-breakers can cause problems.

When they look at the Ireland team-sheet, they'll sense opportunity.

Schmidt is testing his depth, building a squad and managing his front-liners' load.

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Take Jack McGrath and Devin Toner out of the starting XV and the 13 other players have 96 caps between them.

Tighthead Andrew Porter is still learning the ropes in the position, Joey Carbery is starting his first game of the season at out-half. The centres and the back-three are new combinations.

Normally, the schedule throws up a soft touch in the November schedule but Fiji are no Canada. This is a real test of what Ireland have when you dip below the surface.

The talent is there for all to see, but until they have combined on the big stage there must be doubts about their capacity to put together a big performance.

They can draw comfort from the closing stages of last week's win over South Africa when so many replacements and new faces combined to put together an impressive try for Jacob Stockdale.

It was great to watch, but the Springboks were a beaten docket at that stage. Against a fit and firing Fijian side, they'll have their work cut out.

Schmidt, of course, will have picked apart their footage and identified weaknesses.

Andy Farrell will look to cut off Fiji's oxygen by getting in their ball-carriers' faces and it would be no surprise to see Nakarawa met by a couple of Irish players whenever he has the ball.

Carbery and Kieran Marmion will be asked to target the positional weaknesses in the visitors' back-field.

As Leinster have shown, Nadolo and Nagusa are not as spectacular when they're asked to defend or contest the high ball.

The forecast is for a dry evening which is good for the full house who can expect some fireworks, the question is whether they'll get a close game.

Ireland always go into these games well prepared and Schmidt will be hoping to see some of these young guns make the most of their opportunity.

Given Simon Zebo's impending departure, the back-three all have a chance to stake a claim while in the centre both players must show something after the combination of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw went so well last weekend.

The pairing is enormous, undoubtedly the biggest Ireland have ever fielded, and their capacity to deal with the large Fijian ball-carriers will be key.

For Stuart McCloskey, it is a chance to make up for lost time. After making his debut at Twickenham during the 2016 Six Nations, he disappeared from the scene and now gets a second cap to show what he can do alongside Chris Farrell.

Attention

Carbery has been the centre of attention all week and Schmidt needs a performance from the precociously talented 22-year-old.

The Leinster starlet has played almost all of his rugby at full-back this season, but prefers the No 10 slot.

No one doubts his talent, but his coach wants him to show he has the capacity to take the right options and kick his goals ahead of a Six Nations campaign where he'll most likely be Johnny Sexton's back-up.

Alongside him, Marmion is a player who has now earned his coach's trust after replacing Conor Murray so impressively last season.

Up front, the selection of Porter is a nod to the 2019 World Cup. The 21-year-old is a tighthead greenhorn who only took up the position last season, but his physical capacity is clear for all to see.

"It's the acid test for Andrew, without a doubt," Schmidt said of the No 3.

"He's got good people around him, he's thoroughly impressed us with his attitude to training. He's a long-term project for the right here and right now, suddenly.

"That's what makes him of real interest to us on Saturday. Hopefully he can impress and get comfortable in what's an uncomfortable environment."

Captain Rhys Ruddock, part of an all-Leinster back-row, says the entire pack will rally around the inexperienced prop at scrum-time.

"Andrew is immensely strong and powerful, so once he learnt the technique and the nous to do that and his strength did the rest of it," he said.

"It speaks volumes for him and how far he's come already. From training with him and playing with him already I've massive confidence that he can showcase what he can do tomorrow.

"That's something that we always pride ourselves on in this environment, your back-rows are as excited for a scrum as your front-rows.

"You may think that's impossible because front-rows love it and traditionally back-rows could take it or leave it, but we've kind of built that within the group - that the back-rows and second-rows are getting just as excited for a scrum.

"So, it's on all of us to support whoever is in the front-row at that time and to give them that energy and confidence that we're with them all the way, that we're not going to go off before the ball's out and stick in the fight as long as they do.

"We definitely have a role to play in that but the way he's trained, the way he's prepared, gives us confidence in what we can do."

With Jack McGrath out to prove a point having been dropped last week and Rob Herring selected because of his consistency and work-rate, Porter will have good backing in the front-row. Toner will provide ballast behind him.

Alongside Toner, Ultan Dillane is another who has work to do having been left out of the 23 to face the 'Boks.

So, motivation shouldn't be an issue. The bench will come on with points to prove, with Henshaw set for a run at full-back if things are going well, and the ideal result for Schmidt is a tough game that ends with a comfortable win.

It's certainly within his side's capabilities, but it is far from assured against a team who shouldn't be underestimated.

Seeing how the young guns play in the heat of Test match battle is the real goal here.

Verdict: Ireland 30 Fiji 21

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