Having backed up their Summer Series victory over the All Blacks with a winover World Champions South Africa, it was a very different Test for Ireland this weekend as they welcomed Fiji to the Aviva Stadium. The Irish had made a number of changes from their “first choice” XV and were lucky not to go behind early on as Teti Tela’s early penalty was pulled wide. However it was just a temporary stay of execution, as just moments later the visitors spread the ball wide on halfway and got around the Irish to put Kalaveti Ravouvou over for the try, while things got even worse for the Irish as Robbie Henshaw’s game was brought to an end after just 4 minutes. Nick Timoney escaped punishment minutes later for a no-arms tackle on Levani Botia, and the Ulster back row took advantage of this to go over for Ireland’s first try after 15 minutes, a time that should have still been during his sin bin period. Fiji were struggling to find an answer to Ireland’s driving maul, and after Kieran Treadwell was held up under penalty advantage, Manasa Saulo was sent to the bin for the team’s accumulation of penalties in their own 22, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man in the pack to drive Timoney over for a second try. Tela soon added a penalty after Treadwell was caught offside at a clearance, but the Irish were straight back on the attack and Robert Baloucoune was sent over for the try in the corner, with Mathieu Raynal deciding that a crawl in the build-up from Jimmy O’Brien was legal. A breakdown penalty against Levani Botia as Saulo returned to the pitch allowed Ireland to kick up into the Fijian 22 again, but after a couple of phases opened up space to hit back on the blind side, Mack Hansen knocked on with the line a his mercy. However when some of the Fijian kick chasers started their run before they were played onside, Ireland were given another chance from 5m out and after going through the phases, Jack Conan tried to crash over out wide but couldn’t stop himself being pushed into touch. As Fiji looked to attack in the final minute of the half, Tadhg Beirne’s counter-ruck led to a turnover and as Hansen chipped on, Fiji just about covered it under heavy pressure at the expense of a lineout close to their line, but the defence held firm andBotia won a turnover that allowed them to kick the ball out to end the half with the score at 21-10.
With Fiji struggling for much structure in attack, Ben Volavola was brought on early in the second half, but the Islanders’ chances of victory were dealt a huge blow just 5 and a half minutes into the half as Albert Tuisue was sent off for a no-arms tackle that made contact with the head of Joey Carbery. Things soon got even worse as Api Ratuniyarawa was sin binned 5 minutes later for collapsing a maul, while at the other end of the pitch Cian Prendergast showed them how to legally deal with a maul, coming through the middle to get on the ball carrier and taking him to ground. As the game reached the hour, the 13 men of Fiji successfully turned over an Irish driving maul, but they were then pushed off their own ball on the resulting scrum, which wheeled perfectly for Craig Casey to send Hansen over on the blind side. As Fiji returned to 14 men on the pitch, a fabulous offload from Seta Tuicuvu to the looping Jiuta Wainiqolo allowed the wing to break and feed back inside to replacement scrum half Simione Kuruvoli to go over beneath the posts, to allow Volavola an easy conversion. Ireland continued to attack and look dangerous as debutant fly half Jack Crowley appeared to have opened up the attacking game with his introduction, but a series of individual errors meant that these chances continually ended in disappointment. However as the game entered the final 10 minutes, a strong carry by replacement Max Deegan took the hosts up to the Fijian 5m line, and Cian Healy finally burrowed over for the try, with Crowley kicking the conversion to secure a 35-17 victory.
With the World Cup less than a year away, Andy Farrell was clearly using this match to look at the depth within the squad with a view to filling the final couple of spots in the World Cup squad, but also to start looking ahead to the players who will be replacing the outgoing generation as we enter the next cycle going into 2024. So who really stood out among the fringe players?
Nick Timoney was lucky to avoid being penalised early in the game, but performed well for the rest of the match, with his 2 tries and a Player of the Match award deserved after his big carries, while replacement back row Cian Prendergast also looked a real handful in defence. Kieran Treadwell partnered well with Tadhg Beirne and though he gave away a poor penalty int he first half, he made up for it with some great carrying.
In the backs, Muster duo Craig Casey and debutant Jack Crowley certainly appeared to bring more to the attack than the starters, though it must be noted that they also benefited from the extra space caused by Tuisue and Ratuniyarawa’s cards. Robert Baloucoune will be disappointed with the lack of good ball that came his way, but his Ulster teammate Stuart McCloskey put in a solid all-round display to try and further his claim for a spot in the first team.
Their own worst enemy
We all know that teams like Italy and the Pacific Islands are not often refereed as leniently as the bigger Tier 1 nations, but even so, Fiji’s discipline is atrocious!
While you can understand the odd offside or breakdown penalty as every team gives these away, they were giving away basic penalties like chasing a kick from an offside position or poor tackle technique—just look at Tuisue’s red card, where his tackle on Carbery was always too high, but then made even worse as he led with the shoulder and made no attempt to wrap the arm, or last week where a swinging arm cost them a yellow card.
But what really kills them is their inability to defend the maul legally. It cost them a yellow card last week against Scotland and 2 in this match, and that will usually be enough to kill off any chance of victory, especially against the top teams. And it’s not as if they are unable to do it, as they successfully dealt with an Irish maul on the hour despite having 2 of their more experienced forwards in the bin, so if they can do it in those circumstances, why cant they do so with 15 men on the pitch?
I recognise that this is far from their only issue, and that for those playing in Super Rugby, the atrocious disciplinary standards of SANZAAR will not be helping the matter, but they have the physicality and skill to compete against most of the top teams, and while they clearly need a fly half to control this team and get them directed, simply just improving the discipline will be enough to put the pressure on some of those teams above them and start turning these gutsy losses against Tier 1 into wins.