It is not often you hear a coach asked how difficult it will be to lift his players in the aftermath of a Test victory but the fact Joe Schmidt accepted the premise of the question underlines just how myriad were the reactions to this hard-fought win over Fiji.
For Ireland’s supporters, whose most recent experience of the Fijians had been a 53-0 cakewalk for their team at Thomond Park in 2012, scraping past the multi-skilled, wonderfully instinctive and powerful islanders this time around may have been a little too close for comfort, secured as it was by a 72nd-minute Ian Keatley penalty.
Yet Schmidt got exactly what he bargained for when he selected such an inexperienced team, put some of them into unfamiliar combinations and subjected them to the intensity of this international-level test.
There may be individuals subjected to that examination of their credentials who will feel it was a challenge they could have done without but for an Ireland management running out of games to add viable Test experience around the fringes of a battle-hardened starting XV in the countdown to the 2019 World Cup this was an important stepping stone, the value of which may only be realised during that tournament.
Normal service is expected to resume this week ahead of Saturday’s Guinness Series finale against old foes Argentina as Ireland look to finish some unresolved business from the last World Cup. Schmidt is set to recall the frontliners who put South Africa to the sword in the autumnal opener nine days ago while many of the players who achieved victory over Fiji will return to their task of preparing the A-listers for battle with the Pumas and pressing their claims for a place on the bench.
Yet their exertions at the weekend will be analysed extensively and locked away in the Schmidt memory banks as he builds towards finalising his squad for Japan and the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Ireland broke out into a 17-3 lead, thanks to first-half tries from Darren Sweetnam, Dave Kearney, and Jack Conan engineered wonderfully by fly-half Joey Carbery in an exciting first home start that would be halted on 59 minutes by a suspected fractured arm.
It might have been more had another Dave Kearney score been disallowed due to a knock-on earlier in the move but Fiji began to do what they do best and capitalise on Irish mistakes and the ensuing broken-field play.
An attacking Ireland lineout in the Fijian half was knocked on and the visitors played fully to the advantage that accrued, getting the ball quickly out to left wing Nemani Nadoli through the soft hands of forwards Akapusi Qera, Apisalome Ratuniyarawa and Leone Nakarawa.
Nadolo, the man mountain with the quickest of feet, did the rest from that left touchline, crossing over the halfway line and sending a perfectly weighted grubber kick inside which he collected himself and powered into the Ireland 22 before drawing the last defender and sending scrum-half Henry Seniloli under the posts on the stroke of half-time, the home side now just 17-10 in front at the break.
It was a hammer blow to the Irish which denied them the freedom to play out the second half in comfort and there was further unease when Dave Kearney threw out a pass intercepted by Timoci Nagusa, whose try converted by Ben Volavola, levelled the scores on 45 minutes.
Carbery’s exit, as the gap he spotted inside the Fijian 22 was closed rapidly by two tacklers, meant Keatley’s first act was a pressure-filled penalty kick, dispatched with nerveless efficiency but Ireland erred once more, Jordi Murphy caught offside and Volavola levelling again at 20-all in the 69th minute.
The game was in the balance, even after Keatley nudged Ireland back in front for what would be the final time and Schmidt had the pressure situation he sought for his Test rookies.
Had he been willing to sacrifice a home win against second-tier opposition, albeit ranked ninth in the world, to see the exercise through?
The response was a less than convincing: “Yeah.”
“We wanted to back them as well, we wanted to be able to say to those young players ‘we back you’, we feel you can go out and get this job done’,” Schmidt elaborated.
“Yes, there was always an element of risk in that and looking back would I do the same thing? You probably would, you just hope you wouldn’t concede that try before half-time, and go in at 17-3 and keep that confidence going into the second half.
“But, in a way, that (Seniloli) try was really good for us. We saw guys tightening up, the amount of turnovers we conceded in that first half; we conceded 11, they conceded 10, it was a turnover-a-thon, and that’s always dangerous.
“Of the two teams, who are the more dangerous when it becomes a free for all? I think with the athletes and experience they have, they’d be a real risk for us.”
With risk, as Schmidt knows, there is the opportunity for reward and he got it by putting his fringe players under the microscope. When the time came, they found a way to see their team home.
“I don’t think they’ll need too much picking up, they were pretty excited about the opportunity, they recognise they were given a huge responsibility, they are playing a huge Test at home in an Ireland jersey - they are Ireland... It’s a first opportunity that they want to grow into other opportunities, and they will be really motivated to do so and they know.” The question is, when will that next opportunity arise. As the Ireland boss said before the game, Six Nations Championships and Test series in Australia are no places for experimentation.
“That’s a frustration for us,” Schmidt said on Saturday, “that’s the nature of Test rugby, you play in these very brief windows, then you have to wait and by the time our next competition comes up, the personnel could be different again.
“I’d say Joey will be back fit, ready and well able by then, but there could be a few guys who get injured through the European games or something like that and suddenly you’re plotting out how you’re going to go about it when you don’t have this guy and you have to adapt. Part of what we wanted to do was to keep growing that base so that if we had to adapt, the adaptation wasn’t going to be as extreme as it possibly could have been.”
A Conway; D Sweetnam, C Farrell (R Henshaw, 64), S McCloskey, D Kearney; J Carbery (I Keatley, 64), K Marmion (L McGrath, 77); J McGrath (C Healy, 55), R Herring (J Tracy, 55), A Porter (T Furlong, 55); U Dillane, D Toner (K Treadwell, 64); R Ruddock – captain (CJ Stander, 61), J Murphy, J Conan.
K Murimurivalu; T Nagusa (V Goneva, 59), J Vatubua (A Tikoirotuma, 73), L Botia, N Nadolo; B Volavola, H Seniloli (N Matawalu, 48); C Ma’afu (P Ravai, 57), T Tuapati (S Koto, 69), M Saulo (K Tawake, 59); A Ratuniyarawa (S Nabou, 69), L Nakarawa; D Waqaniburotu, A Qera - captain, N Nagusa (S Kunatani, 64).
Paul Williams (New Zealand)
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