By Phil Rice
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt took a calculated gamble last Saturday at the Aviva Stadium that a shadow XV would be strong enough to take care of a second-tier rugby nation, and at the same time provide a useful update on the status of his reserves.
For 30 minutes it seemed like a well-conceived plan, but then Fiji tore up the script and ran in two quick tries and suddenly the sides were level.
Schmidt could have introduced his heavyweight substitutes from a ‘loaded’ bench but instead decided to hold fire and see how his reserves coped with the situation.
In truth, Ireland controlled the game for the most part but were unable to turn their supremacy into points.
Once Joey Carbery left the field after 62 minutes with a suspected broken arm, whatever attacking guile that Ireland had demonstrated vanished completely and they relied on bullocking runs from their muscular centre pairing of Stuart McCloskey and Chris Farrell to break down the Fijian defence.
Unsurprisingly they made little headway and in the end victory came through the reliable boot of replacement fly half Ian Keatley.
With ten minutes remaining Tadhg Furlong was quickly summoned from the bench as Ireland’s creaking scrum was called on to withstand an assault on their five-metre line.
Andrew Porter had looked less than convincing at tighthead and it was a critical moment in the game.
The impressive Furlong comfortably dealt with the Fijian loosehead and Ireland were awarded a relieving penalty.
For the remainder of the game Ireland never really looked like losing their grip, with CJ Stander also making a telling contribution from the bench.
The win extended the team’s run to six successive victories but there is no doubt that few of the participants will feature this week when Argentina visit the Aviva. In fact there were very few who added to their reputations.
Andrew Conway was deservedly named man of match. Within seven days he has established himself as a key player going forward in Schmidt’s plans.
With the imminent departure of Simon Zebo, Conway can now be considered as a first-choice wing and cover for the injury prone Rob Kearney at full back.
It is difficult not to feel sorry for Joey Carbery’s current predicament. In the absence of Paddy Jackson he has become first-choice backup to Johnny Sexton at fly half for his country.
However, his Leinster coach Leo Cullen not only prefers Sexton at ten but also Ross Byrne, necessitating a move to full back for Carbery.
This means that the 22- year old is expected to hit the ground running as an international fly half with no game time to prepare for such a key playmaking position.
To his credit he coped well on Saturday creating Ireland’s first try with an incisive break and superb pass for Darren Sweetnam to score within five minutes of making his debut.
However, controlling a match against a frontline nation is significantly more challenging than against Fiji. In addition, if his arm is confirmed as fractured he is unlikely to feature again until close to the start of the Six Nations.
The departure overseas of Ian Madigan and the suspension of Jackson has created a serious blip on the fly half conveyor belt, and with Sexton not unaccustomed to the occasional injury Schmidt may have to consider compromising his desire to ignore exiled players.
By all accounts Madigan has been in sparkling form for Bristol, albeit in the English second tier Championship.
There is little reason to suspect that this week’s Ireland starting XV will differ from that which took the field for their comprehensive victory over South Africa two weeks ago.
Presumably Keatley will deputise for Carbery on the bench and if necessary Conway will move to full back if Kearney doesn’t recover in time from the knock he received against the Springboks.
Sweetnam did enough at the weekend to warrant a start on the wing if Conway is moved to 15. The memory of the debacle against Argentina at the last World Cup is still fresh and that will be added spice on Saturday, and the Pumas enjoyed a good 31-15 win in Italy last weekend.
Schmidt will be keen to extend his team’s six match unbeaten run and it will be a major surprise if they fail to end 2017 on a high.