It’s Only Fiji

‘Only Fiji’ might have been a wash, but at least Ireland looked purposeful and inventive. We suspect less exposure to the coaching staff is a good thing, as it allowed the Ulsters youngsters to do their thang with youthful fearlessness and lack of experience. It’s glib to say we didn’t learn anything – England certainly managed to take things from beating Only Fiji a week ago by less than we did with their full team – but it certainly was less than ideal.

Ireland would have loved a more testing run out to be able to infer a little more into their young team’s performances, but they got what they deserved in one sense – the IRFU’s lamentable decision not to hand out caps for the game was at least partly responsible for Fiji’s decision to take a night off tackling. Another major factor for the opposition, and it’s hard to know how any squad would react, was the untimely passing of one of their members -no doubt the tragic death of Maleli Kunavore was on their minds.

Still, the sight of a natural wing (Craig Gilroy) was exciting on a visceral level. In recent years, Ireland have made a habit of making wings out of centres – Shane Horgan, Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble for example (Dorce made the opposite journey) – and it’s refreshing to see a born winger in full flight. When you see the silky running and nimble footwork of a genuine wing, you feel your heartrate quickening – think Vinny Clark or Bryan Habana in full flight. Gilroy did enough to push Trimble hard for his slot for the Pumas game.  Given Trimble’s more limited, power-based game, it can only be a matter of time before he finds his Ulster shirt under threat as well.

The biggest loser of the night was, oddly, the other winger, Ferg.  He played well and scored two tries, but in comparison to Gilroy, he looked like what he is – a centre playing out of position. Plus, not only did Gilroy look a better wing, but they way Luke Marshall settled effortlessly in to the scene was another flashing light. Both McFadden and Marshall will likely displace Dorce and PWal in their favoured 12 shirt at the same time at provincial level, but Marshall showed he is a long-term threat to Ferg’s presumed succession to Dorce in green.

Continuing on the Ulster theme., Paddy Jackson did enough to warrant a bench slot against the Pumas – he is a natural talent and chose the right option nearly all the time. The only pity is that his placekicking ran awry after such a confident start.  There is little value in persisting with a tired and disinterested ROG – it may come down to just how cross management are with him for his careless kick-away against South Africa.

On the down side, it was predictable disappointing to see Fiji reverting to dirty high and late tackles (and ball-squeezing) when things weren’t going their way – the tip tackle on Murray could have been disastrous had he not got his hand down and the late hit on Paddy Jackson was horrible. There was quite a bit of niggle in the game at the end, and it would have been disappointing to see a red card flashed… but not surprising.

Also, the actions of the tiny, but vocal, militant minority in booing Jamie Heaslip off the field was needless, small-minded and a timely reminder of the nasty inter-provincial bitterness still bubbling beneath the surface in Ireland. These people do not represent anyone but themselves, and the reaction of the vast majority of fans was warm and proud.  Besides, Heaslip’s skill in putting McFadden away for the first try of the second half showcased his great ability, while his breakdown work was excellent as usual.  He’d a good night as captain.  Next up, Fernandez Lobbe.

Finally, there was some grumbling on Twitter about Ulster fans’ somewhat parochial take on the game.  On this occasion, we [this is the Leinster half of WoC writing this paragraph] can forgive them a somewhat one-eyed view.  Up north there is a strong sense that Ulster’s revival has not been recognised by the national team management, and whether coinidentally or not, a number of their best players persistently come out the wrong side of marginal selection calls against Munster players (think Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy and latterly Tom Court).   It’s been a while since they could celebrate a good Irish performance with so many of their home grown players in the XV (8 by the final whistle) – a little over-exuberance is understandable!

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World Cup Preview: Fiji & Namibia

Group D Opposition: South Africa, Wales, Samoa

Pedigree: With a very respectable history at this tournament, Fiji are twice quarter-finalists, most recently in 2007. Despite having no right to be on the same field as the Springboks (copyright Jacque Fourie), they were far from disgraced in a 37-20 defeat, having earlier disposed of Wales in the pool stages.

This will be Namibia’s 4th successive finals, although they have no wins to report – their best result being the 17-32 humiliation wreaked on Eddie’s Ireland in Bordeaux. To put that in context, their next best results are 30-point defeats to Romania and Georgia, and their worst was 0-142 against the Wallabies in 2003.

Players to watch: Fijian flyer Napolioni Nalaga intimidated much of Europe as part of an all-conquering (well, all except Munster and Leinster) Clermont side, but he failed to return from holiday, then said he was suffering from depression, and ended up being let go. His whereabouts were a mystery until he appeared (and scored two tries) at the PNC – lets hope he is back in full fitness (mental and physical) and his best. Anyone who has watched Racing Metro this season has probably seen Albert VuliVuli get a yellow card for a high tackle – the man is a powerful centre and should love the Bokkebosh game.
If you were told of a Jacques Burger who plays for Saracens, you might guess his nationality as Seth Efrican. But you’d be wrong – he’s Namibian, like Percy Montgomery. Although he’s unlikely to emulate Percy’s 2007 feats. Namibia also have a hooker who has piqued our interest – a man called Egbertus O’Callaghan. We wonder does he give away dumb penalties when Namibia have the opposition under control? If so, we have a funny feeling we know one of his distant cousins…

Good tournament: For Fiji, another quarter-final will be the expectation, and they have respectable records against all of the bigger guns in this pool. Namibia will hope to get away with their dignity intact.

Bad tournament: For Fiji, losing to both Wales and Samoa is the worst-case scenario. Namibia will fear having a century put on them by the notoriously sympathetic-to-the-underdog South Africa – and having the ability to speak the same language as Bakkies Botha is not necessarily a good thing.

Prospects: In one sense, it’s harsh to put these teams together as, unlike some of our other minnows previews, one team is streets ahead of the other. But we had to put Namibia somewhere. They are comprised mostly of home-based players and semi-pros playing in their powerful neighbour next door, with a few lads based in France, England and Romania (!) thrown in. They recently beat Portugal and came within a score of depleted Romania and Georgia sides in the Nations Cup, which is far from disgraceful, although their previous tour in November 2010 saw them emerge winless from Iberia.

At 20th in the world, they are the lowest ranked team in the competition, despite it being their best ever position. As always, one hopes they can do their country proud and expand rugby’s appeal, but this could be a high-water mark, given the cultural background of the sport in their country, and the up-coming teams from Iberia and South America who could potentially overtake them in the near future.

Fiji surpassed all expectations in 2007 with a first quarter-final appearance in 20 years, welting Wales after struggling past Japan and Canada; then giving the Springboks a decent run for their money. Since then, they have exported a few big and threatening backs to France, and had a few pretty successful tours of the Northern hemisphere. In 2009 in the lashing rain at the RDS, they saw Jonny Sexton and Mushy make promising debuts for Ireland, and were in contention until giving away a silly try after half-time, then fell apart. This winter, they should have won in the Millennium, but failed to put away a woeful Welsh side when the opportunity presented itself.

They mostly beat Samoa in their PNC games, but Samoa have more players from Europe to bring in. It’s a huge pity that perhaps their best eligible player, Isa Nacewa, has refused a call-up. It’s hard to blame him, given the circumstances of his single cap, but he would be exactly the kind of intelligent pivot this team could do with if they’re to win three games in this group.

Verdict: Like Samoa, Fiji are involved in a three-team mini-league with Wales. The three teams are fairly closely matched, and it’s feasible each could win one from two. But we anticipate Wales to have too much class and squeeze out Fiji and Samoa in the final reckoning, possibly due to bonus points. Namibia will get panned by all-comers – they have been thrown in with three teams who enjoy throwing the ball around and a fourth who enjoy kicking the ball into orbit and beating up on minnows – we anticipate an average losing margin of around 50 points.