By David Blair
Uncapped and uncompetitive
AN EXPERIMENTAL Ireland XV convincingly swept aside Fiji 53-0 on a damp, and blustery Saturday evening in Limerick. So far, so good, yet the game lacked Test match intensity. This was partly due to Irelands’ dominance in every facet of play, but also because of the misguided decision to downgrade this autumn fixture to an uncapped international. In simple terms, the powers that be at the IRFU deemed Fiji unworthy of a full international, or perhaps they feared the consequences of defeat for the senior team. This was a contentious decision, that in some quarters was deemed disrespectful to the visiting Islanders.
So we awaited the Fijian response. They had a point to prove and plenty of motivation to challenge the Irish, except it never happened. The Islanders may have executed their traditional ‘Cibi’ war dance in their own typically impassioned way but they failed to translate that into a performance of fire and brimstone. The match was essentially a non-contest.
A long way behind Samoa
After watching Samoa overcome a physically beaten-up Wales on Friday evening, we may have been forgiven for thinking Fiji could continue a positive weekend for the Pacific nations with a decent showing in Limerick. Samoa, chasing a top 8 seeding for the 2015 World Cup, appeared to take their game to the next level with a devastating display featuring brutal counter rucking and an impressive physicality in attack. And with many of their squad gaining regular exposure to top level rugby in Europe and elsewhere, they showed they merit a place amongst the top tier nations in the modern game.
The Fijians, in contrast, are languishing down at 14th in the latest IRB world rankings behind Tonga and Canada. It would help if Head Coach Inoke Male wasn’t spending too much of his time bartering with European clubs for the release of his top players. Sireli Bobo and Jone Qovu both made their excuses and pulled out of the Fiji squad for the Test, while Josh Matavesi withdrew citing club commitments. Whilst the clubs pay their wages it’s clear that the withdrawal of these players harms the global game at Test level. It may be that the IRB needs to intervene for the good of the game.
A look to the future
Declan Kidney, for once, selected an experimental starting XV, without the fear of being accused of handing out ‘easy caps’. The backline was particularly inexperienced with the inclusion of three uncapped Ulstermen; Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson. They were joined by Darren Cave who contributed his 3 caps to the combined total of 32 amongst the backline. In the pack, 20 year old Iain Henderson started at blindside having made a cameo appearance against the Boks last weekend. To a man, the youngsters justified their selection.
Luke Marshall showcased his impressive array of distribution skills in midfield. His late try was just reward for an assured performance. On this showing Marshall has a massive future in the game, and with D’Arcy and O’Driscoll both in the twilight of their careers the call to the top ranks may not be too far away. Likewise Henderson may benefit from injury concerns presently limiting Irelands’ back-row options. Physically Henderson already looks more than capable of holding his own on the international scene.
Thomond Park seems to suit Craig Gilroy
Thomond Park is becoming something of a home away from home for Ulster winger Craig Gilroy. His hat-trick of tries on Saturday evening adding to the superb solo effort he scored in April’s Heineken cup quarter-final at the same venue. Gilroy is a natural finisher, and his trademark pirouette for which he is well known on the Ravenhill terraces was as effective against the powerful Fijians. There were one or two fumbles under Murray box kicks, but otherwise this was another successful night in Limerick for the young man.
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Gilroy will now be thrust into contention for a senior cap, though perhaps there is too much riding on the Argentina test for Kidney to tinker too much with his selection. Two-try Fergus McFadden has a more realistic chance of a promotion to the starting XV. Nonetheless Gilroy looks destined for a senior cap in the future.
Follow David Blair on Twitter @viscount_dave