Ireland face Samoa for the sixth time on Saturday evening in a game which marks Joe Schmidt’s long awaited first fixture as Ireland head coach. Their previous five meetings favour an Irish victory at the Aviva with Ireland winning four of those games including their most recent fixture in 2010. Of that game, Declan Kidney said ‘it was a bit of an arm wrestle’ on the day, a dangerous proposition against the powerful Samoans. The one exception in the history of the fixture finished 25-40 to Samoa at the old Lansdowne Rd back in 1996, a game which rightly embarrassed Ireland at the time.
There would be no such embarrassment if Ireland were on the wrong side of the result on Saturday. Samoa are 7th in the World rankings, currently one place above Ireland, and deservedly so having picked up wins against Australia, Italy, Scotland and Wales in the past two seasons. They’re targeting Ireland next, and you can bet your last euro, pound or Samoan tala they’ll not be daunted by facing an Irish team which has hardly impressed in 2013 thus far.
There’s no doubt it’s an awkward beginning to the Schmidt era. Samoan sides are traditionally a unique blend of power, with added power. A tough opponent at the best of times, but they’ve become more tactically aware with the right structures in place in recent seasons earning them a genuine claim to be a top-tier nation. It’s also worth mentioning the sad loss of Peter ‘Fats’ Fatialofa during the week, the legendary captain of Manu Samoa most famous for leading the Pacific nation in the 1991 RWC when they beat Wales. With emotions high in the Samoan camp, you have a recipe for an extraordinarily motivated side which, to a man, will do their utmost to honour a popular figure in the game with a win in Dublin this weekend.
Jamie Heaslip skippers Ireland in this game but it was O’Connell who was named Joe Schmidt’s captain for the season, he takes his place on bench. Jack McGrath receives a first cap at loosehead, with Devin Toner’s superb early season form earning him a spot beside Mike McCarthy in the second row. Chris Henry wears no.7 with Sean O’Brien held back on the bench alongside fellow Lions tourists O’Connell and Cian Healy. At 10, Paddy Jackson deservedly deputises for Jonathan Sexton who isn’t risked because of a hip complaint. Dave Kearney will hope to make his debut off the bench after Fergus McFadden was preferred on the left wing.
Joe Schmidt was never expected to ring the changes; most of the side picks itself but the non-selection of Luke Marshall is perhaps one sticking point for those who enjoy a debate. Most important, alongside winning, for Irish fans will be evidence of Joe Schmidt’s positive influence on the team after a couple of frustrating years watching 8-men rucks and a faltering set-piece.
Has a Samoan squad ever seemed so familiar? That’s a consequence of both their international achievements and more individuals impressing in the European club game. Kahn Fotuali’i, formerly of Ospreys and now at Northampton Saints, and Tusi Pisi are match winning half-backs of the highest quality. David Lemi has been ruled out of the tour with a shoulder injury, leaving Fotuali’i to captain the side.
Traditionally Samoa bring a physical set of forwards and this touring squad are no different, being well equipped in the front row is a given for them with Census Johnston (Toulouse), James Johnston (Saracens) and Logovi’i Mulipola, a Leicester Tigers try scorer against Ulster earlier in the season, comfortably the match of any international props, which may be a concern for Ireland with McGrath making debut at this level. Census may be missing, but the others will give the Irish front row a stern examination.
All Eyes On
With Jonathan Sexton having to wait until next week to return, Paddy Jackson starts at 10 and will assume place kicking duties. The youngster has had a turbulent beginning to his international career but an impressive start to the season with Ulster coupled with Ian Madigan unexpectedly playing second fiddle to Jimmy Gopperth at Leinster, means Jackson is given another opportunity. There’s no doubting his ability, and some mature performances, notably back to back versus Leicester and Montpellier, this season suggest he might be ready to take the next step.
He may not have hit the heights of his time at the Ospreys since moving to the Saints, but there’s no doubting that Kahn Fotuali’i is a world-class player. Fotuali’i captains the side this weekend, in the absence of David Lemi and Paul Williams, and without those two, as well as other experienced players like Daniel Leo and Census Johnstone, he will play a big leadership role. He is capable of magic and loves a snipe around the side of a ruck, so Ireland’s fringe defence will have to be on the money.
Head to head: Brian O’Driscoll v George Pisi
This will be an intriguing battle. O’Driscoll has not played a great deal of rugby this season, but will have to get up to speed fast if he is to deal with the Samoan powerhouse Pisi. The Northampton centre’s game is built around direct running lines and a superb offloading ability, but he also has an excellent sidestep and no small turn of pace. Of course, O’Driscoll is no stranger to high-class opponents, and has faced Pisi before in the Leinster v Northampton fixtures down the years. He may not possess the pace of old, but there are still few better at identifying space and exploiting it. His experience and leadership, along with Gordon D’Arcy, will also be vital with the inexperienced Paddy Jackson inside him.
Ireland will be desperate to start the Joe Schmidt era with a win. It probably won’t be easy viewing, in fact I would expect a tense finish and few nervy moments against arguably the best Samoan side we’ve seen in the professional era but Ireland’s firepower off the bench in the closing stages should see them close out a hard fought victory by 7-10 points. In particular, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy could be crucial introductions around the hour mark.
By David Blair (@viscout_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images