Joe Schmidt knows the risks he is taking by selecting such an inexperienced side to face Fiji this evening but if it means Ireland are better prepared at the 2019 World Cup then the end will have justified the means.
Over the past few seasons, this midway staging post in the Guinness Series has provided some calm between two storms provided by Tier One visitors to the Aviva Stadium. Three years ago it was Georgia that provided the cannon fodder for the head coach’s second string, 49-7 lambs to the slaughter, while 12 months ago it was Canada, recipients of a 52-21 drubbing as Ireland drew breath between dates with the All Blacks.
Back in 2012, Declan Kidney’s Ireland XV hammered Fiji 53-0 at Thomond Park in a non-Test international taken to Limerick due to the expectation of low ticket sales.
This time around, though, things are little different. The visit of Fiji, now up to ninth in the World Rugby rankings, and their team of powerful athletes who play with such instinctive freedom, combined with Ireland’s record-breaking 38-3 win over South Africa seven days ago, has ensured a 51,000 sell-out.
The bookmakers still heavily favour the home side but Schmidt has picked a side with a total of 188 caps, compared to the 609 amassed by last weekend’s starting XV, whose front row of Cian Healy, captain Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong boasted a combined 190 caps.
Suddenly we have a game on our hands and head coach Schmidt would not have it any other way. With time running out before the World Cup and opportunities to deepen the experience in his potential squad, he is eager to discover how his Test rookies in new combinations react to a stress-test far greater than those posed by the Georgians and Canadians in previous Novembers.
“I’d love to see them get a result. As much as anything, we’re looking at individuals at how they perform and how they fit in. Because we just don’t have these opportunities, apart from this,” Schmidt said. “Next week is Argentina and then first up (in the 2018 Six Nations) is France away. It is not a place to experiment.”
The head coach added: “Any result would be really good because Fiji are ranked a lot higher than Canada. They bring a different level of physical impact and athleticism and skill, particularly through the back end of the tackle with their ability to offload and keep the ball alive and really damage you.
“This is probably a tougher challenge because of how they play and where they’re ranked and the individuals they have.
“We’re a bit more vulnerable this time. We’ve kept a couple of guys in whereas we made all the changes (against Canada). Now, that was mostly because, by the time we got back from Chicago (12 months ago), everyone was pretty well wrecked.
“We haven’t had to travel this week. There is still a degree of freshness in the group.
“But, any Test against South Africa takes a toll even if the result was exaggerated at the end. At 70 minutes, that result was still in doubt and the players were working very, very hard.”
Five of last week’s replacements who put in those hard yards in the final 10 minutes and reaped the rewards with three tries in that endgame have been handed the chance as starters this weekend, in addition to a Test debut for Munster centre Chris Farrell, a first start in 18 months for midfield partner Stuart McCloskey and a home bow for tighthead Andrew Porter.
They are three of the nine players with 10 caps or fewer, challenged by Schmidt to step up and stake a claim for Japan, while another, Joey Carbery, is charged with leading the way from fly-half in a new half-back partnership with Kieran Marmion.
Rhys Ruddock, who reprises his summer tour captaincy on home soil from blindside flanker, said yesterday that there need be no concern about Carbery, whom he joked had turned the captain’s run into the “Joey Run”.
Ruddock is aware of the need, however, to put thoughts of individual auditions to one side. Opportunity may be knocking but the door will open if they get the job done as a collective.
It will have to be that way for the threats awaiting them are numerous. From the sublime yet powerful Leone Nakarawa in the engine room at lock to the giant on the wing that is Nemani Nadolo, Fiji have the potential to wreak havoc on a team that allows them to set the tone.
“When they have the ball you have to be energised to go after them and not be afraid of them because if you let them dictate terms they’re capable of taking anyone on and beating defenders at will,” Ruddock said. “So just try and give them less time and space and be accurate with what we’re doing so don’t gift them opportunities to play the way they want to play with lots of time and space.”
Schmidt will ensure his team, for all its inexperience, stick to that task and get the job done, however hairy it may get at times.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved