Thirteen changes and one positional switch from a side that had just recorded a record win over South Africa marked a bold statement from Joe Schmidt.
In anticipation that the majority of his matchday squad would be up to speed with the Schmidt way of doing things after three tests and a month spent together on tour last summer, the coach was willing to gamble.
It was up to the players to seize their chance.
As if to highlight the callow nature of the team on Saturday, Ireland’s front row from the previous game against the Springbok’s of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong had two more caps, (a combined total of 190), than the entire team against Fiji.
With a six-day turnaround recently announced between Ireland’s opening two games against Scotland and hosts Japan at the 2019 World Cup, this became an exercise in pushing the boundaries and exploring the current status of Ireland’s rapidly developing reserve troops.
After impressive home wins last June over a Scottish side that had just beaten Australia and Italy, this improving Fijian squad were always likely to pose problems, especially in attack, and that is exactly what transpired at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening.
In many respects this game will prove far more beneficial in the long run that the facile win over South Africa in the opening game of this November series.
It was certainly far more informative than the corresponding matches against fellow tier two opponents Georgia (49-7) and Canada (52-21), who were both dispatched with comparative ease in November 2014 and 2016 respectively.
Ireland were somewhat fortunate to emerge victorious in the end and in many ways, a draw might have been a fairer reflection of the artistry and blistering pace the Fijians brought to broken play.
The fact that Ireland facilitated that situation with a lack of control and uncharacteristic inaccuracy throughout a fraught second half will pose some concern for Schmidt.
As an exercise in putting a really exciting crop of talented Irish players under pressure in the heat of international battle it proved highly informative, especially when the visitors scored a pair of scorching tries in a blistering five-minute spell either side of the break. From a commanding position of 17-3 ahead to 17-17 within the blink of an eye, this contest hung in the balance.
The fact that the second of those tries, from the highly impressive Montpellier wing Timoci Nagusa, came from an intercept pass from Dave Kearney when Ireland set to counter-attack from deep asked the type of mental question that, in some ways, Schmidt would welcome even if he would never admit it.
While the character of the side was never called into question, what will vex the head coach most was the lack of composure shown when Ireland entered the scoring zone in the opposition 22.
On three separate occasions in the second half, Ireland conceded penalties when in possession metres from the Fijian line.
Ireland are normally ruthless once they establish a foothold in this area of the field and rarely leave without points.
But not on this occasion. Much of that was down to poor work at the breakdown, a big problem throughout the game, with the tackled Irish player often isolated and lacking in support.
The surprising thing was the physicality the Fijians brought to this key phase of play, regularly identifying when to flood the area with bodies, counter-rucking with precision and aggression. This is not the Fiji we have become accustomed to over the years. The net result of all this was slow ball at the base of the ruck which made it a challenging afternoon for Kieran Marmion at scrum-half.
Given the importance of Johnny Sexton to the Irish set-up and the unavailability of Paddy Jackson, who Schmidt had invested a vast amount of time and effort bringing up to speed on the international stage over the last two seasons, it was crucial that Sexton’s latest understudy, Joey Carbery, stepped up to the mark.
That wasn’t going to be straightforward given that this contest amounted to the Leinster man’s first start in the pivotal out-half role all season.
It was understandable in those circumstances that some of his decision-making, in terms of game management, was questionable at times.
What he left this audience in no doubt of was his ability to play flat on the gain line, his amazing footwork and his sublime passing ability off of both hands. One of those off his left hand, after a brilliant step left the Fijian defence reeling, paved the way for a superb try for Darran Sweetnam on his first start in an Irish jersey.
Carbery eventually paid a heavy price for his willingness to attack flat and attracting defenders when absorbing two monstrous hits, the second of which from the 19 stone reserve prop Peni Ravai put him out of the game.
A reported fractured arm is now likely to keep him sidelined for a while.
Under pressure, this Irish side badly missed the direction and composure that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray bring to proceedings. With them onboard it is highly unlikely that a 14 point lead would be offered up against tier two opposition.
Without them, Ireland’s kicking game was nowhere near as accurate and punishing but we suspected as much in advance. That is the standard that Marmion and Carbery must aspire to.
It was also enlightening for a number of Ireland’s fringe players that, being sprung from the bench with 15 minutes to go when all the heavy lifting has been done, is far easier than having to create that platform in the first place.
For that reason alone, this was a very worthwhile exercise against an impressive Fijian outfit that will only get better by the time the next World Cup kicks off in two years time. For Joe Schmidt you sense it will be back to the tried and trusted against Argentina next Saturday. After the South African success, those players have earned that right.
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