After the demolition of Romania, Ireland will seek to make it two from two with another dominant display, this time against Tonga.
It will, on the face of it, be a much tougher test than the one they had in the opening weekend of the tournament. The Pacific Islanders are a mighty fine side on paper, filled with former All Blacks and Wallabies, and they should give one of the Rugby World Cup favourites a stern examination of their capabilities.
World Rugby’s change in eligibility laws has allowed ‘Ikale Tahi to bring the likes of Vaea Fifita, Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau into the squad, making them a fearsome proposition for pretty much any opponent.
The Irish saw at first hand the improvement in Samoa since they were allowed to select ex-New Zealand internationals with island ancestry as Andy Farrell’s men were pushed all the way in a warm-up match Bayonne.
It was perhaps the wake-up call they needed and Ireland will be desperate to avoid another banana skin now that the World Cup proper has rolled around.
The world number one side began the global tournament impressively enough, thrashing Romania 82-8, with Johnny Sexton marking an impressive return from injury and suspension.
Sexton starts again in another strong Irish outfit as they seek to make it successive victories ahead of their biggest challenges against South Africa and Scotland.
Tonga, meanwhile, will be playing their first match of the competition, which means they have freshness in their legs, so it will be fascinating to see if that plays a role in this weekend’s encounter.
‘Ikale Tahi, however, will not be as battle-hardened as their opponents, who have already had a taste of and should start quickly on Saturday.
The Tongans can compete with the game’s intensity early on but, if they are unable to match Ireland’s tempo in the opening quarter, then they could well be blown away.
Where the game will be won
The start and the end will be critical. Forget everything about set-piece, kicking game or style of play, Tonga simply have to be dialled in mentally and physically early on, and be conditioned well enough to last the whole 80 minutes, otherwise Ireland will run riot.
There is concern that the Pacific Islanders’ warm-up matches basically consisted of a double-header against Canada, with the second of those coming on August 15. That means there has been a month gap between games, which leaves you wondering whether they are ready to face the world’s best side.
If they can get the intensity right then you can start thinking about putting the pieces in place in attempting to challenge the Irishmen in the key technical areas, but that is a long shot at the moment. Their form over the past few years has been dreadful and, even accounting for some of the individuals they have in their team, the Tongans’ preparation has been a bit of a mess.
What they said
Ireland lock Tadhg Beirne believes that they need to step it up physically from the Romania game when they take on Tonga.
“I think physicality is going to be top of their agenda,” Beirne said.
“They’re going to come and try and have a scalp off us for sure. They’re a serious side when you look at the team on paper. I’ve no doubt that they’re going to have a go at us.
“Physically, we certainly need to continue to step it up. From warm-up (matches) into Romania, we’ve slowly been building it but we’re nowhere near where we feel like we can be.”
Tonga centre Pita Ahki is preparing to face a “relentless” Ireland outfit when the teams go head-to-head in Nantes on Saturday.
“There’s been a lot of chat around what they can and can’t do, but they’re number one for a reason,” he told RTE Sport.
“If you watch the game at the weekend, they’re just relentless, they just keep playing and keep playing. Even the last try they scored, they could have kicked it out. They were down in their own 22 and decided to keep playing and scored with 83 minutes gone.
“It just shows what a class side they are and how fit they are and how hard they’ve worked in the off-season.
“This Saturday we’ll try put out a performance that’ll make our families happy, our country, our little nation of Tonga.”
Players to watch
There are few surprises in the Ireland squad, but inevitably it will be another case of Johnny Sexton watch this weekend. The captain got through their match with Romania unscathed and was, in fact, incredibly impressive in that encounter, scoring 24 points, but this is another step up for the 38-year-old. His body will be put to the test by the physical Tongans, while his performance will be more under the microscope, so Farrell will be desperately hoping that the outcome is positive on both fronts.
Sexton interestingly partners Conor Murray at half-back, with Jamison Gibson-Park not in the squad. Murray has had his critics over the past couple of years and, at one stage, wasn’t even getting into the Munster side, but the 34-year-old was back in form during the Six Nations and starred as they claimed the Grand Slam. Gibson-Park is still the number one scrum-half for the big games, but a good display here could help his chances of usurping the Leinster man.
That could also be the case for Ronan Kelleher, who starts at hooker with Dan Sheehan still absent. Sheehan has been training this week but has not played since Ireland’s World Cup warm-up against England in August, so Kelleher gets a shot in the number two jersey ahead of Rob Herring. The 25-year-old is a top-class player and excellent around the field, but he needs to show that his lineout throwing is up to scratch – something which is considered a weakness of his.
Scarlets forward Vaea Fifita regularly packs down in the second-row for his club side, but this weekend, he has been named at number eight for Tonga. The former All Black forward certainly has the all-court game to feature in the loose forwards for his country and will look to stamp his mark on the encounter. He has a knack for scoring long-range tries, whether it be from intercepts or sprinting away from the base of a ruck.
Few rugby fans don’t know the name Charles Piutau, and for good reason, he is simply box-office and while he is hard to miss, he is definitely worth keeping an eye on this weekend. The full-back has some of the best footwork in the game and can always get the ball away with a brilliant offload. The former All Blacks outside back is a real attack weapon for the ʻIkale Tahi, who will be looking to make the most of his threat against Ireland.
If you saw Exeter Chiefs last season, you will be well aware of the danger winger Solomone Kata poses. The powerful Tonga back can play in the centres, too, and will be out to make use of his strength in the wider channels. He is a real handful to bring to ground, and given a chance close to the line, Kata will be nearly impossible to stop.
While the forwards will dictate the momentum of this match, and if Tonga are unable to slow Ireland’s ruck speed, it will be a long game for the Pacific Islanders; however, there is a mighty midfield clash between Bundee Aki and Pita Ahki.
Aki had a phenomenal match against Romania, scoring two tries and gaining 191 metres, setting the new record for an Ireland player in a Rugby World Cup match. He also made five line breaks as he regularly tore through the Oaks’ defence.
He comes up against the world-class Toulouse inside centre. Ahki is just as effective as Aki on attack, and while he is excellent in carrying the ball to the line, his playmaking ability sets him apart from the pack. He has a brilliant set of skills and vision and unlock any defence with his attacking nous.
The two players are crucial to their respective sides on both sides of the ball, and their performances will significantly influence the game’s outcome.
Farrell’s men are the best team in the world and have put out close to their strongest side to face a team who have struggled recently, despite some of the individual talent they possess. We can, therefore, only see this going one way, and that is a comfortable victory for the European outfit. Ireland by 35 points.
2003: Ireland won 40-19 in Nuku’alofa
1987: Ireland won 32-9 in Brisbane
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Conor Murray, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Craig Casey, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Robbie Henshaw
Tonga: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Afusipa Taumoepeau, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Solomone Kata, 10 William Havili, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Vaea Fifita, 7 Sione Talitui, 6 Tanginoa Halaifonua, 5 Halaleva Fifita, 4 Sam Lousi, 3 Ben Tameifuna (c), 2 Paula Ngauamo, 1 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi
Replacements: 16 Sam Moli, 17 Tau Koloamatangi, 18 Sosefo Apikotoa, 19 Semisi Paea, 20 Solomone Funaki, 21 Sione Vailanu, 22 Sonatane Takulua, 23 Fine Inisi
Date: Saturday, September 16
Venue: Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes
Kick-off: 21:00 local (20:00 BST, 19:00 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Matthew Carley (England), Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Tom Foley (England)
READ MORE: ‘Take the p*** out of’ – The butt of jokes in Ireland’s Rugby World Cup squad
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