Man of the Match Conway continues strong November as Ireland do just enough to see off flamboyant Fiji
Ireland 23 Fiji 20
The sight of Luke McGrath rushing to the touchline to bring the game to a close said everything about this game. It was the first time this young Irish side could breathe easily.
Joe Schmidt wanted to find out what lay beneath the surface of his squad and this bruising encounter with a highly competitive and uber-physical Fiji will have taught him a lot.
This was no rout against the likes of Canada, but a cracking game of rugby against a fast-improving team packed with Top 14 talent that remained a contest until the end.
Fiji made a mockery of the bookmakers’ decision to offer a 25-point spread and, had they been a tad more composed, might have been celebrating their first win in this fixture but their discipline and accuracy cost them in the last 10 minutes.
The full-house got value for their ticket money, even if they spent a long period of a brilliant first-half engaging in a mindless Mexican wave as beneath them the tide turned in the Islanders' favour as they fought from 17-3 down to level the game.
The big concern for Schmidt was the injury suffered by Joey Carbery midway through the second-half. From the way the 22-year-old was holding his wrist it seems highly unlikely he’ll be available next week against Argentina.
The out-half had been magnificent at times during his time on the pitch, offering a rare attacking threat and some beautiful moments with ball in hand on his first start on home soil.
Others to impress were captain Rhys Ruddock, Darren Sweetnam, Andrew Conway and Ultan Dillane but when they let their lead slip and the big Fijian ball-carriers kept coming at them the Irish players’ earlier assurance faded and they just about managed to negotiate their way home by three points.
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Ireland started sloppily and almost found themselves in real trouble as Fiji kept the ball alive and found Nemani Nadolo on the left wing, the big man rode Kieran Marmion’s tackle but his pass to Henry Seniloli went forward. If it had found the scrum-half, he was in.
Fiji forced a turnover from the scrum, but Jordi Murpy forced a ruck penalty to allow Carbery clear his lines.
Minutes later, the young out-half was creating an excellent first try for Sweetnam who waltzed over unopposed after the Leinsterman stepped inside Campese Ma’afu and drew Kini Murumurivalu before finding the winger out right.
Carbery missed the conversion and then got hit hard but fairly centre Jale Vatubua.
Fiji’s approach to attack from anywhere was causing Ireland problems and another sweeping move from one end of the pitch to the other saw Nadolo released into space, but rather than go himself he found Seniloli who couldn’t break free and the work was undone with a knock-on that allowed Ireland clear.
Ireland a good spell of possession in Fiji territory that came to nothing as Murphy got rucked off the ball by winger Timoci Nagusa and Chris Farrell went off his feet at the ruck.
Instead, visiting out-half Ben Volavola narrowed the margin to 5-3 with a penalty after Andrew Porter failed to retreat under the high ball.
A Fiji knock-on from the restart handed Ireland more time in the opposition half and this time they made it count.
Stuart McCloskey worked a neat switch with Marmion off clean scrum ball to make good gains and a couple of phases later the Ulster centre found Andrew Conway who sliced through the line and found Dave Kearney wide left and the winger marked his return to the Ireland jersey with a try.
Carbery’s conversion struck the upright and he was denied another chance when Kearney’s second try was chalked off for a knock-on by Conway in the build-up.
However, he didn’t have to wait too long as a sloppy knock-on by Dominiko Waqaniboruto bounced up kindly for Jack Conan who raced in untouched and the fly-half nailed his third attempt to make it 17-3.
Fiji finally got the try they deserved on the stroke of half-time as they capitalised in an Irish knock-on by again moving the ball wide left to Nadolo who shifted the ball to his boot quickly and then collected his own kick before finding Seniloli on his inside and the scrum-half’s support was rewarded with a try.
Volavola brought an entertaining half to a close with the conversion to make it 17-10.
Ireland almost began the second-half in style as Conway cleverly worked space for Sweetnam who left three defenders in his wake and found Marmion but the scrum-half didn’t have the legs to make it and was force d into touch.
Instead, Fiji drew level as Ireland looked to counter from inside their own half but Dave Kearney’s pass was well-read by Timoci Nagusa who juggled for a second before gathering and racing in under the sticks.
Volavola made it 17-all, but despite the scoreline Rhys Ruddock turned down a kickable penalty and told Carbery to kick to touch to try and restore the lead but it came to nothing as Jack McGrath was penalised for holding on in the tackle and the clock ticked by 50 minutes with the scores level.
Ireland’s heads were dropping and Fiji’s tails were up. The home side were lucky to escape when another wide attack found Timoci Nagusa in space on the right, he bounced Conway off but Leone Nakarawa couldn’t hold his pass 5m out.
Schmidt changed up his front-row and the replacements earned a relieving scrum penalty instantly.
Cian Healy got going in open play too, rampaging down the right wing and tossing the ball inside to Rhys Ruddock but the captain got penalised for holding on and the chance passed.
The prop was then punished for the same offence after Murphy stole a lineout and Ireland grew increasingly frustratd.
Cerbery was forced off with a serious looking wrist injury and the home side were cursing their luck as Conway was denied by the bounce of the ball as his chip bounced off the corner flag as he prepared to collect it and score.
When Waqaniburotu strayed offside, CJ Stander – on for Ruddock and captaining the side – went for the posts and Ian Keatley nudged his side back in front.
It didn’t last long as Murphy was penalised at the ruck and Volavola levelled from the tee, but a poor Murumurivalu tackle on Healy afforded Keatley a chance to make it a three-point game once again.
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)
Referee: P Williams (New Zealand).