Ireland was made to work for their second victory of their November Test series on Saturday, with a spirited and physical Fiji side running the much-changed home side close at the Aviva Stadium.
With both sides scoring three tries apiece, Joe Schmidt’s men emerged 23 – 20 victors thanks to a brace of penalties from fly-half substitute Ian Keatley late in the game.
Having made 13 changes in the starting 15 for the clash against the Pacific Island nation, Joe Schmidt handed first caps and starts to a number of players, including Chris Farrell and Darren Sweetnam.
With many of the side adding to their single figure cap count, Ireland was almost a glimpse to the future, as the up and coming of Ireland’s rugby landscape got a well-earned chance to shine.
Three first-half tries had Ireland moving the right direction but a couple of costly errors either side of half-time saw the free running Fijians grabbing a pair of tries of their own. A third midway through the second half and suddenly the visitors were level.
Trading penalties lat on, Ireland took the spoils in the closest contest the two sides have ever played out. Were it not for Ireland’s experienced bench, the result might well have been different.
Following their win, Ireland’s experimental side has given head coach Schmidt much food for thought as he plans his side’s final Test of the November series, that being a tricky contest against Argentina next weekend.
On review of the Fiji victory, a few players have put themselves in with a great shot at a place in Schmidt’s final squad of 2017.
Here are three who stood out.
The Munster back put in a Man of the Match performance in what was his fifth cap for Ireland. Having started on the wing against South Africa last time out, Schmidt moved the 26-year-old into the full-back role for the Fiji clash.
From there, Conway provided Ireland with 80 minutes of attacking ambition, running down the wings, contesting for high balls and generally ensuring that if there was to be a weak link in the Irish backline, it would not be him.
Fully deserving of his personal accolade on the day, Conway has given Ireland’s coaching staff the headache of just where he should feature next weekend.
Two strong performances this month should all but guarantee his place in Schmidt’s match-day 23 next weekend but the question is whether he will replace Rob Kearney at full-back or if he will return to the wing.
At the very least, Conway now gives Ireland some serious options in the backline for the foreseeable future.
A second-half substitute, Healy turned in probably his best performance in years. Having endured a string of injuries in recent seasons, the 30-year-old Leinster prop has returned to consistent action this term looker leaner and stronger than he has for some time.
Against a physical Fiji side, Healy fronted up and relished the confrontation. What’s more, he dominated and terrorised the visitors’ defensive line.
Rampaging through, over and around opponents in a manner reminiscent of the Cian Healy of five years ago, had he been on the field from the start, he would have rivalled Conway for the Man of the Match award.
His 35 minutes on the field was almost capped off with a sensational solo try as he barrelled through the Fijian 22-metre line. Breaking free of the first line of Fiji’s defence, the big prop was called back by the referee.
Adjudged to have been held in the tackle, replays called the decision into question and with Healy continuing on through two more tackles before dotting down, the call back by the referee appeared rather harsh on review.
All in all, it was a barnstorming effort from the loosehead and head coach Schmidt must now decide if he has done enough to leap-frog Jack McGrath for the starting spot next weekend.
The Leinster No.8 certainly made the most of his opportunity to start in the green of Ireland, with an assured and ambitious effort from the back of the scrum.
A position that has been in the possession of CJ Stander for the last year or so and Jamie Heaslip before that, Conan has had limited time to shine for Ireland.
Against Fiji, however, he did just that with a string of powerful carries that Fiji’s defences could not withstand. Picking up a number of highlight reel moments that saw the 25-year-old sprinting on beyond the visitors’ breached lines, including a fine first-half try.
While Stander is expected to start for the Argentina clash, Conan’s stock is on the rise and his performance on Saturday will only add to that and gives him every chance of involvement next weekend.
So, while the 23 – 20 scoreline might not have pleased every Ireland supporter, Schmidt and his coaching team will almost surely be happy with the selection headaches they have been presented with following Ireland’s sixth consecutive victory.
Another strong performance next weekend will end the year on a high for Ireland and install them the side best equipped to dethrone England next Spring when the Six Nations returns.