A tournament stained by an endless orgy of aerial ping-pong was rescued by Fiji’s refreshing brand of open, counter attacking rugby that had the fans on their feet for all of their games.
I will never forget the scenes in the media centre prior to the pivotal pool game between Scotland and Italy in St Etienne when the entire press core was glued to the television, following events unfolding in Nantes where the Fijians were giving Wales an incredible run for their money. When the islanders scored a memorable try with four minutes left to secure a 38-34 passage to the quarter-finals at the expense of the Welsh, the place went mad.
Unfortunately, since the highs of that tournament, Fijian rugby has been torn apart by internal strife and player unavailability with a very poor showing in the 2011 World Cup the inevitable consequence. Nothing highlighted their demise more that the 66-0 annihilation by Wales in Hamilton in a rematch of that 2007 pool encounter. Only last week their coach, Inoke Male, lambasted clubs in France and England for attracting young Fijian players into their academies with a view to them qualifying for their international sides on the three-year residency rule.
At the other end of the scale there have been accusations, confirmed by a number of sources including Munster backs coach Simon Mannix, that French clubs offered Fijian players inducements to make themselves unavailable for that 2011 World Cup in order to cover for their French counterparts who were away on duty with the national side. On foot of these revelations, IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset has promised an investigation.
Meanwhile, Fiji continue their current tour shorn in excess of 15 first-choice players.
In those circumstances one can only sympathise with their problems, but even that cannot be used as an excuse for their failure to offer any meaningful challenge to the Ireland XV in Thomond Park on Saturday. With ten of the side that pushed England all the way in the opening half in Twickenham the week before, Fiji showed nothing like the commitment in the tackle and flair in attack that pressurised Stuart Lancaster’s side for protracted periods.
Perhaps they felt undervalued by the fact that the IRFU made this a non-capped affair and if the tourists hid behind that as a reason for not turning up, then they have nobody to blame but themselves. In the circumstances the tag of non-test match that accompanied this contest was apt. From the outset Fiji were passive in defence, disorganised in the set piece and brittle in the tackle. The mindset of the Fijian players is always open to question and there are times when, by just observing them in the warm-up, you know they are not up for the challenge.
When Sean Cronin had a crooked delivery to the Irish line out after ten minutes of play and Welsh referee Leighton Hodges offered the visitors’ captain Deacon Manu the option of a scrum or line out, the Scarlets tight-head opted for the latter, despite the fact that the only two scrums in the game to that point yielded a free kick apiece. That decision told you everything you needed to know about the non confrontational nature of the Fijians. To their credit, Ireland sensed a soft centre and exposed the brittle defence of the tourists, breaking tackles with an ease one would not expect at this level of rugby.
The impressive thing from an Irish perspective was that the young half-back partnership of Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson had the smarts to exploit the vulnerability of the visitors and engineer a number of early tries for Craig Gilroy, Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden and Darren Cave that killed this game as a contest. While they stuttered somewhat to build on their superiority in the third quarter of a drab second half, there was sufficient evidence on show to suggest a number of this youthful brigade have a bright future and will challenge for a place in the full international squad in the not too distant future.
Asked by my sports editor in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 World Cup to look into a crystal ball and name a potential Ireland side for the 2015 event, I chose Ulster’s Luke Marshall as my inside centre. Saturday’s game represented his first step on that journey and the Ulster man seized the opportunity to showcase his impressive range of skills. As a former out-half he has a strong kicking game to supplement good hands, a powerful defence and a keen awareness of what’s happening around him. His contribution to the opening try from Gilroy highlighted a number of those vital qualities. He should not have to wait long for another opportunity.
His Ulster team-mate Gilroy had a smashing game with a quality performance that will warrant serious discussion from the management team. Next Saturday’s clash against Argentina may come too soon for him, given that Declan Kidney will probably opt to flank Simon Zebo with the more experienced presence of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, but it is only a matter of time before Gilroy puts his Ulster colleague Trimble under intense pressure for his starting position.
Elsewhere, Iain Henderson, Dave Kilcoyne and Jackson showed they too have much to offer in the months and years ahead. That said, one has to put all praise in context. Coming into this game the Fijians occupied the high moral ground on the basis of how they’ve been marginalised by the actions of some European clubs. The nature of their challenge and the fact that, mentally, they just failed to turn up in Limerick has unfortunately done nothing to promote their cause.