Sunday 18 August 2019

Job done, now for revenge mission - Joe Schmidt's focus swiftly shifts to Argentina

Ireland 23 Fiji 20

Dave Kearney dives over the line under pressure from Fiji’s Timoci Nagusa to score Ireland’s second try. Photo: SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
Dave Kearney dives over the line under pressure from Fiji’s Timoci Nagusa to score Ireland’s second try. Photo: SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When his frustration fades and he reviews this Test match in the cold light of a December day, Joe Schmidt will appreciate the value of a hard-fought win.

First, he is plotting revenge. The team he picked to face Fiji was in one sense a nod to the future, but in another it was recognition that beating Argentina is the priority.

It won't put the World Cup demons to bed, but you sense there'd be a quiet satisfaction for a coach who has been reliving Ireland's quarter-final exit in Cardiff over and over again since.

Publicly he'll tell you it's just another international, but it clearly means more than that.

If it didn't, then he'd probably have mixed things up a little more for Fiji rather than resting 13 players. The Islanders (9), after all, are ranked ahead of the Pumas (10) in the World Rugby rankings.

Yet he rolled his dice and fielded his second-choice half-backs, fourth and fifth-choice centres, a back-row that would struggle to start if everyone was fit at Leinster and a tighthead prop who has only ever started one senior match in the position. Andrew Conway, Jack McGrath, Rhys Ruddock and Devin Toner aside, few had a hope of holding on to their jersey this weekend.

Fiji’s Levani Botia gets to grips with Andrew Conway on this occasion. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Fiji’s Levani Botia gets to grips with Andrew Conway on this occasion. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

And they won. For 35 minutes it looked like they might even romp home with a few tries, but Fiji rallied and a try either side of half-time put the squeeze on this Irish team.

Schmidt wanted to learn how these players could cope in the Test arena and when he trawls through the footage he'll be far more informed.

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For some, it'll be good news, for others it's back to cold storage for another while.

"They were pretty excited about the opportunity - they recognise that they were given a huge responsibility of playing a home Test in an Irish jersey," Schmidt said.

Kini Murimurivalu and Darren Sweetnam battle for possession. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Kini Murimurivalu and Darren Sweetnam battle for possession. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"Therefore, they knew it was a big responsibility, but also appreciated the opportunity that they got and they will feel that it's a first opportunity that they want to grow into other opportunities and they will be really motivated to do so.

"We wanted to back them as well. We wanted to be able to say to those young players, 'we back you, we feel that you can go out and get this job done'.

"Yes, there was always an element of risk in that, but looking back would I do the same thing? I probably would.

"You just hope you wouldn't concede that try before half-time and you'd go in 17-3 and that would keep their confidence going into the second-half.

Fiji's Nikola Matawalu is tackled to the ground by Andrew Conway. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Fiji's Nikola Matawalu is tackled to the ground by Andrew Conway. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"But, in a way, that try was really good for us because we saw guys tightening up.

Turnovers

"The amount of turnovers we conceded in that first-half - we conceded 11, they conceded 10 - it was a 'turnoverathon' and that's always dangerous.

"Of the two teams, who's more dangerous when it becomes a bit of a free-for-all? I think with the athletes and experience they have, they would definitely be a real risk for us."

As an exercise this was valuable, but it came at a cost as Joey Carbery suffered a suspected broken arm and will miss next week and a good chunk of Leinster games.

Cian Healy celebrates scoring a try which was then dissallowed. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Cian Healy celebrates scoring a try which was then dissallowed. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

He wasn't perfect, but the Athy youngster showed that he is ready to perform at this level and can offer Ireland something very different in attack.

His role in Ireland's first try was outstanding, stepping off both feet to cause havoc in Fiji's defence before throwing an inch-perfect pass for Darren Sweetnam's first Ireland try.

Dave Kearney doubled the lead after strong work from Stuart McCloskey and when Jack Conan ran in a third and Carbery converted to make it 17-3, it looked like the kids would be alright.

Andrew Porter, left, and Cian Healy celebrate at the end of the game. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Andrew Porter, left, and Cian Healy celebrate at the end of the game. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

However, the Fijians had carried a constant threat and they delivered a game-changing try on the stroke of half-time thanks to excellent play from Nemani Nadolo, who set up scrum-half Henry Seniloli to score.

After the break, a rattled Irish side began forcing things and Kearney's telegraphed pass afforded Timoci Nagusa a handy try and when Ben Volavola converted the sides were level.

A rattling tackle from Peni Ravai forced Carbery off, but Ian Keatley settled the ship and then steered it home with an excellent final quarter as he held his nerve and kicked two vital penalties either side of a Volavola effort to win it.

It wasn't as fluid as Schmidt would have liked, but it was a proper match for the capacity crowd to enjoy when they weren't Mexican waving.

For Fiji, it was an opportunity missed, but they are a fast-improving side. For these Ireland players, only time will tell if they took their chance.

Today, focus switches firmly to the Pumas, who beat Italy 31-15 in Florence on Saturday to end their long, losing run.

Since the World Cup, Argentina appear to be on the slide, but Ireland's coach is not buying that analysis.

"One of the massive advantages for Argentina, and it's like in any sport, if you are constantly playing against the best I think you get better," Schmidt said.

"You're driven to get better, whereas I feel a bit for Fiji. They don't have the same ability to have the same fixtures, and therefore they don't get the same continuity of progression. It's been tough for Argentina, because they wouldn't have the same depth as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

"Therefore, for them, when they're missing key players it is a big difference."

"They didn't have Nicolas Sanchez last week and they didn't kick those goals (against England), and he's a phenomenally good goal-kicker. So those guys make a real difference for them and I think they'll come here fully loaded.

"I think it will be a really big test for both sides, because we're determined not to make it easy for them and certainly not to give them the head start we gave them the last time."

If he has revenge in mind, Schmidt isn't shouting it from the rooftops.

"It is literally another Test match," he said.

"I think they're a team that feels a bit frustrated about their Rugby Championship performances. There were times where they actually looked quite dominant in those games, but they never sustained it and therefore teams got away on them.

"So I think they will be looking at us and wanting to make a statement, because we've managed to fashion a reasonably good record in recent times and they will have some confidence based on last time.

"We've got a huge respect for Argentina and the quality they'll bring."

Ireland - A Conway; D Sweetnam, C Farrell (R Henshaw 65), S McCloskey, D Kearney; J Carbery (I Keatley 64), K Marmion (L McGrath 78); J McGrath (C Healy 56), R Herring (J Tracy 56), A Porter (T Furlong 56); U Dillane, D Toner (K Treadwell 64); R Ruddock (capt) (CJ Stander 62), J Murphy, J Conan.

Fiji - K Murumurivalu; T Nagusa (V Goneva 60), J Vatubua (A Tikoirotuma 73), L Botia, N Nadolo; B Volavola, H Senilola (N Matawalu 48); C Ma'afu (P Ravai 58), T Tuapati (S Koto 70), M Saulo (K Tawake 59); A Ratuniyarawa (S Nabou 70), L Nakarawa; D Waqaniburotu, N Nagusa, A Qera (S Kunatani 64)

Ref - P Williams (New Zealand).

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