by Brendan Cole
This non-cap international at Thomond Park gives Declan Kidney a valuable chance to look at future options and rest some important players after a tough Test match against South Africa.
On the evidence of this XV, the future is Ulster, with six talented players who loosely fit under the ‘next generation’ umbrella coming into the side from the northern province.
That is no surprise as they gave everything against South Africa, particularly in the gruelling battle between the forward packs. Resting Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy, Chris Henry and Peter O’Mahony makes sense.
It is no surprise to see captain Jamie Heaslip picked again at number eight but the selection of Mike Ross is puzzling ahead of a potentially crucial clash with Argentina.
Why risk Ireland’s scrum cornerstone, arguably the only player Ireland cannot replace if he is injured? That aside, this looked like a good opportunity to give the recently arrived Michael Bent a proper run out at international level. Perhaps giving Bent and Munster loosehead Dave Kilcoyne their first starts simultaneously looked too risky.
Despite the changes, this Irish pack should have clear advantages against a Fijian eight that has struggled to cope with structured, forward-oriented rugby both historically and on this tour.
Of the six who come in, Kilcoyne and blindside Iain Henderson are the potential future stars while Dan Tuohy and Sean Cronin will also be particularly keen to make statements after dropping down the pecking order of late.
Much focus on the backline
The Irish backline toiled equally hard last week, but there was a palpable lack of inspiration to the play. Ireland’s backs popped the odd ball inside but were largely unable to any real uncertainty or real worry in the Springbok defence.
This week, the selection is full of good ball players, but there is a lack of real X-factor in the playmaking roles, and of sheer size.
If Ireland only need to retain the ball and go through phases to generate chances, they should be capable of doing so. But it may not be quite as simple as that. Fiji’s tackling and ability to compete on the deck could be a factor.
That said, what they will bring to the party is the great unknown.
They have already suffered defeats to England and Gloucester on this tour, and make six changes this time.
Four of those are in the pack, with Jerry Yanuyanutawa coming in at loosehead, Api Naikatini moving from blindside into the second row and Iliesa Ratuva and Nemani Nagusa coming in to the back row. Unfortunately, the exceptional Gloucester back-rower Aqapusi Qera drops out of the squad.
In terms of the scrum, Yanuyanutawa is on the London Irish roster and has some Super rugby experience while former Hurricanes player Naikatini should boost the sheer power in the tight five.
Fiji look for scrum dividend
With Deacon Manu of Llanelli continuing on the other side at tighthead, Fiji may just improve their scrum enough to cope in a certain percentage of scrums.
But facing a tighthead of the quality of Ross is a daunting prospect and Ireland can expect to gain yards and points through penalties over the course of the match.
The Fijian backline is also mixed up with Jonetani Ralulu coming in at out-half in place of Metuisela Talebula, who moves to full-back. Ralulu is a capable kicker both out of hand and off the deck and is not afraid of a tackle, but long passing is not a strength, and Ireland can afford to apply good linespeed.
Elsewhere, Josh Matavasi, born in Cornwall and currently playing Top 14 rugby in France, comes in alongside current Leicester Tiger Verenkik Govena in the centres and again, the selection looks more conservative.
But this is still Fiji, and on the wing, Watisoni Votu brings classic Fijian running and evasion, scrum-half Nicola Matawalu has pace and imagination, while Talebula is a dangerous attacker from full-back. The Toulouse winger Timoci Matanavou, named on the bench, is another danger man.
This is a totally different type of contest to last week, with the Fijian philosophy about as far removed from the South African as possible even with the changed selection.
It goes without saying that Ireland will be doing their best to deny the Fijians the unstructured play they thrive on by limiting loose kicking and turnovers.
Even playing conservatively, Ireland’s base of power, structure and technique in the tight should put them in a dominant position for most of the 80 minutes.
Match prediction: Ireland 37-12 Fiji
Ireland XV to play Fiji: D Hurley; F McFadden, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, S Cronin, M Ross, D O'Callaghan, D Tuohy, I Henderson, J Muldoon, J Heaslip
Replacements: R Strauss, C Healy, M Bent, M McCarthy, C Henry, P Marshall, J Sexton, S Zebo
Fiji XV to play Ireland: Talebula, Koniferedi, Goneva, Matavesi, Votu, Ralulu, Matawalu, Yanuyanutawa, Veikoso, Manu, Nakarawa, Naikatani, Ratuva, Ravulo, Nagusa
Replacements: Tuapati, Saulo, Somoca, Ratuniyarawa, Domolailai, Bolotagane, Radidi, Matanavou