There was a moment, in the aftermath of defeat to South Africa last Saturday night, when Declan Kidney was asked if his players had forgotten how to win.
It was a fair question about a team that for the most part had been a party to five straight Test losses, that since 2010 could only count England (March, 2011) and Australia (September, 2011) as victims ranked higher than they.
Kidney was adamant they hadn’t forgotten how to win and insisted his players were still confident. Confident but frustrated, adding: “I know they’re going to click.”
There will only be three or four of Kidney’s loyal soldiers from that recent run of woe on the field when an Ireland XV faces Fiji this evening at Thomond Park but the fresh young things and fringe players selected for this non-cap international have every intention of clicking.
Fiji may not represent a scalp for Ireland but they are just the sort of opposition to get Kidney’s men reacquainted with the art of winning. Big and powerful they may be but once they become frustrated themselves by a structured defence such as Ireland intend to provide, their undoubted attacking flair and love of broken play will be neutralised and Ireland can go about the business of also reacquainting themselves with the concept of scoring tries.
This is not a Test match but a chance for the uncapped, the newly-capped and the frequently overlooked to show Kidney that the future of Irish rugby lies with them. It is an audition they dare not fail and Irish fans will be praying desperately to the rugby gods that they pass.
The uncapped Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall, in that vital 10-12 combination of fly-half and inside-centre, will have a large say in how this team shapes up as an attacking force and that the Ulster connection extends to the jersies numbered 11 (Craig Gilroy) and 13 (Darren Cave) should at least give Ireland’s creative heartbeat a familiar rhythm, albeit untested at this level.
While in the forwards, the physical presence of the Fijians — judging by their set-piece display against England at Twickenham last weekend — should be outmanouevred by the superior scrummaging and lineout technique of an Irish pack featuring Munster loosehead Dave Kilcoyne (Test experience: three minutes) and Ulster blindside Iain Henderson (nine minutes) but anchored by captain and No.8 Jamie Heaslip and with the experience of Mike Ross and Donncha O’Callaghan in its ranks. Even hooker Sean Cronin has 22 caps.
Not one of them will be running out of that tunnel at Thomond Park with the idea that anything less than Test-match intensity is acceptable.
“It’s billed as a non-Test game but we haven’t looked at it like that all week,” back-row forward John Muldoon said yesterday. “There are young guys getting their first chance to wear an Irish jersey. They certainly aren’t looking at it as a non-Test game, despite being billed that way for whatever reason.
“But we want to go out and play well, have good structure in the game and enjoy ourselves. It will be a good game. We know it will. We’re not going to get bogged down into throwing the ball around the place like Fiji.
“We’ve our own structures and plans for the game. It’s important that we stick to those and don’t see it as a friendly or a non-Test game. We want to win, impose our game-plan on them and have some structure, and not have them impose their game on us.”
If Fiji do manage to impose that game, it could make for an uncomfortable night for home fans. Their love of unstructured, sevens-style play is well documented and is the stuff of nightmares for opposition coaches.
“The evidence has been there through the Pacific Nations Cup, the evidence is in their sevens rugby. The evidence abounds about Fiji,” former Ireland defence, now attack coach Les Kiss said. “Axel (Foley) has made it absolutely clear this week from a defensive perspective what they can do, and defence isn’t separate to the rest of the game, it’s how it mixes in with set-piece, how that works, how we can get to maul situations and invite them into that dark world and give us that momentum, create space.
“The scrum; how much pressure we can put in that area. And if get those things right and squeeze the game and aren’t frivolous with our possession, our defence has to be spot on, because they can throw the ball from anywhere, they can chip kick from anywhere, there are spaces everywhere for them, they see it more readily than any other team.”
That can make for some nervous moments, even if Ireland do assume the ascendancy this evening. England weathered just such a storm early on when reduced to 14 men and Scotland this summer nearly threw victory away through one second of loose play.
“That’s the danger,” said Kiss. “We have to be on top of things all the way, because they can score 14 to 21 points like that, and that’s been raised as a total awareness to the team. Not that we need to remind them of it, but it’s been reminded to them on a consistent basis.”
It is a worry and it is also another opportunity for these young players that the future is here and on display this evening. The likes of Kilcoyne, Henderson, Jackson and Gilroy will be thinking very much in the positive in that regard.
Three keys to beating Fiji
1. Staying structured
Fiji’s rugby thrives in broken play and it is up to Ireland not to give that to them. That means not getting sucked into a game of sevens, flinging the ball all over the place and letting the Pacific islanders hurt them on the counter-attack. A huge part of that means sticking to the game plan, being efficient in the set-piece, where the Fijians will be no match for the Irish, and accurate at the breakdown — an area where Kidney’s men proved second best to the Springboks last week. The head coach has ordered a reduction in turnovers, again, with the Fijian threat in mind.
2. Staying consistent
Last week’s defeat to South Africa was the classic game of two halves — Ireland dominant in the first then falling off the pace as the Springboks cranked up their power game in the second.
Solving their problems at the maul, where Heyneke Meyer’s pack lorded it over the home side last week, will be key and making the right decisions in terms of when to run the ball and when to kick for field position also determines Ireland’s consistency.
It all comes back to keeping your game structured and in shape.
3. Giving youth its head
Consistency and structure does not mean a team cannot express itself. Those cornerstones create momentum, go-forward ball and that creates the opportunities for exciting backs like Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden. Of course, they need to be rolled out at the right moments and in the correct places on the pitch or Ireland will bring upon themselves the sort of pressure South Africa exerted on them in Dublin last week. Get it right though, and just look at the attacking havoc these young guns are capable of inflicting.
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