Sunday 18 August 2019

Neil Francis: Some players who took part yesterday won't be seen again for quite a while

Chris Farrell, left, and Darren Sweetnam, right, of Ireland make their way to the pitch prior to the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Fiji at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Chris Farrell, left, and Darren Sweetnam, right, of Ireland make their way to the pitch prior to the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Fiji at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The issue playing in matches like these is that it's like getting a window seat on the Hindenburg. It could be a 60 or 70-pointer or it could be the end of your career.

The scoreline tells it all - the result as tight as OJ's glove. The stats tell us otherwise. Ireland commanded the ball and spent the majority of the game in Fiji's half but this is Fiji and they can do anything from anywhere and they know that if they had been a little sharper and if their wondrous dexterity had not deserted them, this game could have been theirs.

We will have to call this the knock-on international. There had to be over 25 handling errors. Ireland had no scrum dominance. Fiji, normally clueless in this area, stuck to their task and Ireland couldn't initiate anything from this phase. Ireland got nowhere with their maul either and so the question has to be asked: were Fiji that difficult or were Ireland dropping their level of performance to match expectations?

I think the subtle dysfunction in their tight play was down to attitude. Ireland were a long way off being at the pitch required to see off difficult and skillful opponents. That is why a lot of players do not like playing against this type of opponent. Ireland just looked too casual to me. It is healthy for a team to be nervous, it makes you care about your performance and a lot of players didn't care enough about what they were doing. That malaise became infectious as the team was smothered with indifference.

You can attach a bit of blame to the management ticket - sometimes it can be difficult to know what type of game to play against opponents like Fiji. Ireland's game-plan - which they use in highly competitive Test matches - was given the day off yesterday. The two architects of that game-plan were in the stand and so the kicking game when it did appear was a pale shadow of what we normally expect.

Kieran Marmion lost ground in the race to be the shadow scrumhalf. His box-kicking was quite anaemic and the height and depth of his kicks a long way off where they needed to be. Joey Carbery had an easy command of the pitch and some of his passing was immaculate but Ireland were just too predictable and their midfield were meat and drink to an untroubled Fijian defence. Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey are big boys and they engaged with enthusiasm but Fiji had big men in their outfield and they eventually subdued them.

So what was the game-plan yesterday? I'm shagged if I know. It looked like somebody bought a manual at the lost and found and took little bits out of it. Ireland were just wholly inconsistent in their application and their halves did not control the game the way you would expect a Joe Schmidt side to do.

Ireland managed to manufacture some half-decent and reasonably-paced recycle ball but they never seemed to commit anyone and so when the next tranche of runners came to take the ball on there was a welcoming party waiting there for them.

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It was worrying too how predictable Ireland were around the base of the ruck. Fiji, because of their physical size and enhanced physical fitness, didn't commit too many to the ruck. Ireland never really had the wit to pick and drive through the middle and their inside passes were predictable and ineffective.

And so it comes down to the value of a match like this. Ireland play Scotland on September 22, 2019. The Scots had a very good day against the All Blacks yesterday, losing narrowly by 17-22. Our first-choice should get the measure of them but 22 months is a long way away and this match was supposed to tell us who would be going to play against the weaker sides in Ireland's pool.

The question was - what quality of players would be left behind when the plane takes off? A 60-point thrashing and we would be gushing about our reserve strength but wow some of them went a long way towards excluding themselves from selection.

Jack Conan has been in imperious form for Leinster this season and last season but there is the suspicion that when things go wrong, where the match doesn't go to script, that he disappears. That might be a tad unfair but when you are looking for players to put their hands up in matches such as these you expect Conan to deliver a big performance - one that would lead his side out of a stagnant and indifferent performance. His two Leinster cohorts in Ireland's back-row did not have great games either. Ruddock had a very fruitful cameo against the Springboks last week but could not sustain his levels. Jordi Murphy needs a lot more game-time.

Ireland's front-row must also question their performance. I had always thought that David Campese would have made a better loosehead than Campese Ma'afu. We knew that Italy were surprised by the Fijians in this phase last week but Greg Feek will need to get his finger out before the Argies arrive next week.

I blame the crowd too who had started the Mexican wave in the 26th minute - always a bad sign - and they began to cheer Fiji in the 54th minute when Nagusa nearly scored again. The expectation was that team work and structure would trump individualism and uninhibited expression.

It didn't happen and Ireland, very worryingly, were no closer to wearing Fiji down the further the match went on.

Our shadow squad didn't have the wit or patience to dispatch Fiji who to their credit stuck to their task. Their devastation after the final whistle told you that they really fancied their chances yesterday and they should be applauded for an excellent display.

Tomorrow in Carton House will not be for the squeamish and I suspect some of the players who took part in yesterday's match will not be seen again for quite a while.

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