An Ireland XV invite Fiji to Thomond Park on Saturday in desperate need of a moral boosting victory after five consecutive test defeats, their worst sequence of results in 14 years.
Reasons to back Ireland
A disappointing loss at the hands of South Africa last weekend was the latest in a series of recent setbacks leaving Ireland perilously close to dropping into the third tier of world rankings, and in all probability a place in the ‘group of death’ at the Rugby World Cup draw occurring next month. However, in spite of their troubles forwards coach Gert Smal insists the mood in camp remains positive in the lead up to the uncapped fixture against Fiji.
With so many new faces around the camp, this new group of players will be keen to make an impact as Ireland enter a transitional period. David Kilcoyne and Iain Henderson make their first starts this weekend after brief appearances against the Boks. Luke Marshall and Darren Cave form an all-ulster centre partnership, whilst teammate Craig Gilroy aims to replicate his early season form on the wing.
Amongst a youthful Irish XV Jamie Heaslip retains the captaincy and Conor Murray holds on to the scrum-half jersey, with Donnacha O’Callaghan providing further experience in the engine room. Mike Ross also continues at tight-head, Fiji having struggled in the set piece against England and also Gloucester mid-week. This is an area Ireland can target, and dominate.
Tasked with directing matters from fly-half is promising youngster Paddy Jackson. He has matured since a nervous display in the Heineken final last season, impressing in Ulster’s unbeaten start this term. Jackson has more than enough ability to control the game, with Ireland then avoiding the loose, unstructured game which Fijians are well known to thrive on. Should he falter, Jonathan Sexton is on the bench.
Reasons to back Fiji
Traditional masters of the sevens circuit, those skills are transferred to the fifteen man game. They will look to move the ball at every possibility, to implement their offloading game and get their powerful, quite sizeable runners into space wherever they can. Thus, if this unfamiliar Irish team are slightly off their game, in a match without structure the Fijians will punish them.
The Fiji coach, Inoke Male, can rightly be frustrated by his lack of access to several key players with Sireli Bobo, Jone Qovu and Josh Matavesi amongst those unavailable due to ‘club commitments’ in the Top 14. But even without their star names Fiji can field a side, with top level experience capable of causing an upset.
Deacon Manu captained the side against England and Aviva Premiership viewers will be familiar with Leicester Tigers’ Vereniki Goneva, a wing come centre with all the typical attributes of a Fijian flyer. Watch out also for Glasgow Warriors scrum-half Nikola Matawalu, who provided a highlight for the islanders with possibly the best try at Twickenham last weekend.
Prediction: Ireland XV by 25