Irish made to toil for the spoils
Ireland 23-20 Fiji
It's a sign of the momentum behind this Ireland side that the stadium should virtually sell out for the visit of a Tier 2 nation in November. Equally it's illustrative of the mindset of some of those who part with their hard-earned coin - or maybe it's not hard come-by - that the Mexican Wave should be as high on their agenda as having a look at what's in front of them on the pitch.
This was a decent game of rugby: fast, very physical, and worth watching from first to last. Its outcome wasn't certain until the final whistle. There are times when games featuring Fiji are not what you'd hope for. Typically that would be when the weather is hovering around zero, with a biting wind, and when they have none of their stars. Not this. They were sufficiently tooled up to play good rugby, and given that they were up against a side pretty low on experience they must have looked on this as a good opportunity.
In a calendar year where back-to-back home successes over Tier 1 opposition - Italy and Scotland - was the highlight of their record of four wins from six, this could have been the cherry on top. In fairness to Ireland they played out most of the last 15 minutes in the right part of the field, and replacement Ian Keatley did what was asked of him in nailing his two penalties.
Only for a brief period did Ireland look comfortable here, despite the huge efforts of Ultan Dillane and Rhys Ruddock up front. And in Joey Carbery they had a player always looking to create. Given his broken arm, sustained in the second half, he won't be creating anything outside doodling on a plaster cast.
He did well to get up after a perfectly timed, violent hit from Jale Vatubua early in the game. By the time Peni Ravai got to him soon after the hour mark it ended the outhalf's day. Carbery's speed of thought, foot and hand for Ireland's opening try, for Darren Sweetnam on seven minutes, illustrated what makes him unique. An expensive day for Leinster then, more than Ireland.
The man-of-the-match award went the way of Andrew Conway - a player in form, and with a great attitude. But offloads are rarely a good idea in the Joe Schmidt bootcamp - and while he is overly conservative on this issue you'd agree with him that against this opposition it's something you try only when 14 of the opposition are off their feet. And the 15th is being treated for injury.
So Conway and Jack McGrath will have notes under their door in the team hotel summoning them to a meeting. In a game where Ireland would concede 14 turnovers, safety-first seemed the best idea. Fiji are working hard on basics like their set-piece - which was good yesterday - knowing that their ability to do damage off turnover ball is unmatched.
"We're a bit frustrated with that," their Kiwi coach John McKee said afterwards. "In a game so close we probably had opportunities to put Ireland under more pressure. When we did that you could see a difference in the game. They didn't seem as willing to play as they were earlier on."
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By then they were in a sweat, and having come out the right side of it is a bonus for a team with 13 changes to the starting line-up from last weekend. By half time it was 17-10 to the home side, a try just before the whistle from scrumhalf Henry Seniloli closing the gap nicely. As for the score, it was classic: Nemani Nadolo, perhaps the most dangerous barrel in world rugby, got the ball in very little space, grubbered and retrieved it, then made the perfectly timed pass to his nine for the try. Sublime stuff.
If they're not creating then they're pilfering from unpromising situations and turning it into points. As Dave Kearney discovered six minutes into the second half: 3 v 2, he throws the pass a bit late and wing Timoci Nagusa picks it off scores from 50 metres. Level pegging.
Having been 17-3 ahead on 34 minutes after Jack Conan scored off a handling error from Apisalome Ratuniyarawa, this wasn't what Ireland had in mind. They had looked good when they stuck to the menu, less so when they improvised.
Factor in 13 turnovers by the hour mark and you can see why the coach was up and down out of his seat like it was on fire. The good stuff had come in the first quarter when Sweetnam and Kearney finished well.
Ben Volavola had pulled back three points just before Kearney's score, but when Conan got over Ireland may have thought they had got over the hump. The tricky thing in this fixture is that a functional set-piece is not even half the battle given the skill and pace of the opposition.
So Keatley didn't have to think too long about tapping over a penalty to regain the lead on 67 minutes, only for Volavola to add three points of his own a few minutes later.
Keatley was given another shot on 73 minutes after Cian Healy was dangerously upended by Kini Murumurivalu - which he nailed perfectly - and when he nudged Ireland down the line with six minutes left you imagined the plan was to stay in the Fiji 22 until the final whistle. Not quite, but close enough.
Scorers - Ireland: Sweetnam, D Kearney, Conan try; Carbery con; Keatley 2 pens. Fiji: Senioli, T Nagusa try; Volavola 2 cons; Volavola 2 pens.
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 63) J Conan, J Murphy.
Fiji: K Murumurivalu; T Nagusa (V Goneva 60), J Vatabua (A Tikoirotuma 73), L Botia, N Nadolo; B Volavola, H Seniloli (N Matawalu 49); C Ma'afu (P Ravai 57), T Tuapati (S Koto 70), M Saulo (K Tawaki 59), A Ratuniyarawa (S Nabou 70), L Nakarawa, D Waqaniburotu, N Nagusa, A Qera.
Referee: P Williams (NZ).
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