In their first match since their outstanding Churchill Cup final victory over England Saxons, Ireland ‘A’ will take on Tonga tonight as Michael Bradley’s men get the international season up and running at Ravenhill (kick-off 7pm).
‘A’ INTERNATIONAL MATCH: Friday, November 13
IRELAND ‘A’ v TONGA, Ravenhill, 7pm
Team News: The selected Ireland ‘A’ team will be captained by winger Shane Horgan and includes eight senior-capped players, including the likes of Horgan, scrum half Peter Stringer and flanker Neil Best.
Stringer, Ireland’s most-capped scrum half, will partner Ulster’s Ian Humphreys in the half-backs, while the Northampton-based Best will have Sean O’Brien and Chris Henry alongside him the back row.
Best and Henry combined well during the Ireland ‘A’ side’s Churchill Cup final victory over England Saxons in the summer.
There is also an exciting young centre partnership of Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden which could set Belfast alight.
Up front, Mike Ross and debutant Brett Wilkinson will anchor the front row, with Denis Fogarty coming in for his older brother John in a late change at hooker.
John have travelled south to Dublin to link up with the senior squad, providing precautionary cover for Jerry Flannery, with ‘A’ squad newcomer Andy Kyriacou added to the replacements bench.
Meanwhile, Tonga head coach Isitolo Maka, the former All Black number 8, has named a young and talented team to battle it out with the Churchill Cup champions.
Tonga are facing Ireland ‘A’ as part of their autumn international tour, with fixtures to come against Scotland ‘A’ and Portugal.
For the first time since the IRB World Rankings began, the top 20 teams in the world will all be playing matches during the November Test window.
The Ravenhill clash is an eagerly-awaited one, with the Tongan side ranked 15th in the world. Notably, out-half Kurt Morath has been chosen to start – he plays his club rugby for AIB League side Clonakilty down in west Cork.
IRELAND ‘A’: Gavin Duffy; Shane Horgan (capt), Darren Cave, Fergus McFadden, Andrew Trimble; Ian Humphreys, Peter Stringer; Brett Wilkinson, Denis Fogarty, Mike Ross, Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner, Neil Best, Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry.
Replacements: Andy Kyriacou, Bryan Young, Dan Tuohy, Kevin McLaughlin, Isaac Boss, Ian Keatley, Johne Murphy.
TONGA: Vungakoto Filimone Lilo; Latu Nagashima Alipate Fatafehi, Sukanaivalu Hufanga, Joseph Vaka, Poakikaifano Vakaloa; Kurt Morath, Kilifi Fangupo; Toma Toke, Semisi Telefoni, Mosese Moala, Kelekolio Paino Hehea (capt), Emosi Kauhenga, Seti Filo, Uelenitoni Fono, Samiu Vahafolau.
Replacements: William Mosaati Hafu, Po’alo’i Taula, Penisimani Fakalelu, Lisiate Faaoso, Rodney Mahe, Mahe Fangupo, Raymond Pierre Hola, Manu ‘Ahota’e’iloa.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Colin Stanley, Jonathan Peak (both Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ireland ‘A’ to win: 1/7; Draw: 25/1; Tonga to win: 4/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Shane Horgan (Ireland ‘A’) – “I think anyone playing for Ireland ‘A’, their ultimate goal is to either achieve representative honours for Ireland or to get back in the senior side as is the case with me.
“It’s very exciting to be playing with this ‘A’ team and I’m delighted to be captaining it because there’s so many good players – guys are being rewarded for the form they have shown right from the beginning of the season through all the provinces and the guys over in England as well.
“That’s the good thing about the ‘A’ team, no matter who you’re playing or where you’re playing, there’s always huge motivation externally to lift yourself to the next level and it’s nice to be involved with players with that sort of ambition.
“Tonga bring a massive physicality and aggression to every game they play.
“We’ve seen their performances in World Cups and whenever we’ve travelled down to the South Pacific you know you’re in for a tough game.
“When they’ve played against us as a national side or as part of the Pacific Islanders team a few years ago, they were super physical and they brought a real flair to the game.
“I think it will be an exciting match. Hopefully the conditions will allow both sides to play rugby, but It will certainly be a physical game.”
Brian Melrose (Tonga assistant coach) – “I was just appointed to the squad three weeks ago, and this time in Belfast has been the first opportunity I have had to work with the players.
“It has been a busy few days with a lot of constructive work being done on the pitch. The team, as a whole, are a big physical side, with powerful ball carriers and a very strong defence.
“It is difficult to pinpoint any individual player at the minute, but from my initial work with the squad, the back row of Vahafolau, Fono and Filo look to be a useful unit and work well together.
“The skipper, second row Kelekolio Paino Hehea, is a very solid and powerful player.
“In the backs, the New Zealand-born out-half Kurt Morath has a lot of talent. Vaka, the inside centre, is a big ball carrying runner.
“The full-back Filimone Lilo and right winger Alipate Fatafehi are both real prospects for Tonga.
“The game on Friday night will be a massive challenge. Irish rugby is on a high and the provincial teams are all playing well.
“We are expecting a very tough game, but are really looking forward to the experience.”
Pre-Match Links –
Recent Form: Ireland ‘A’ – 2009: ‘A’ International: Ireland ‘A’ 35 Scotland ‘A’ 10; Churchill Cup: Ireland ‘A’ 30 Canada 19; Churchill Cup: Ireland ‘A’ 40 Georgia 5; Churchill Cup Final: Ireland ‘A’ 49 England Saxons 22
Tonga – 2008: Pacific Nations Cup: Tonga 13 Japan 35; Pacific Nations Cup: Tonga 15 Samoa 20; Pacific Nations Cup: Tonga 27 Fiji 16; 2009: Pacific Nations Cup: Tonga 22 Fiji 36; Pacific Nations Cup: Tonga 13 Samoa 27; Pacific Nations Cup: Tonga 19 Japan 21