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Casey And Earls Anticipating ‘Really Physical Contest’ From Tonga

Casey And Earls Anticipating ‘Really Physical Contest’ From Tonga

Ireland scrum half Craig Casey is pictured during Tuesday's press conference at the Complexe de la Chambrerie in Tours ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

No matter the result in Nantes on Saturday night, there is sure to be a mini Munster reunion between Tonga centre Malakai Fekitoa and some of his former provincial team-mates.

Fekitoa ended his lone season at Munster as a BKT United Rugby Championship winner, showing his best form during their title run-in which saw them win away to Glasgow Warriors, Leinster and the defending champions, the DHL Stormers.

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Before he begins his new contract with Benetton Rugby, Fekitoa will don the red jersey of the country of his birth, Tonga, as they begin their latest Rugby World Cup campaign against Ireland.

The 31-year-old was notably part of New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup-winning squad, but with a change to World Rugby’s eligibility laws, he is now representing his native Tonga, along with the likes of Charles Piutau, George Moala and Adam Coleman.

Craig Casey and Keith Earls are two of the Munster contingent who could line out against Fekitoa this weekend, and they have nothing but respect for a player who left a lasting impression on them both for his impact on the pitch and his quiet nature off it.

“Mala is a really kind of quiet guy, a humble fella,” Casey said of Fekitoa. “Lovely fella to be around. Always trying to help young lads get better, even old lads get better. Really drive standards and bring new things into the environment that he’s picked up along the way.

“He’s a very ‘giving back’ type of fella. Very family orientated as well, he’s just had a new child. A lovely fella to be around.”

The longest-serving member of the current Ireland squad, Earls scored two tries against Fiji back in November 2009 and also featured in the Samoa match at the last World Cup. Given the enhanced back-line at Tonga’s disposal, he knows Ireland cannot afford any slip ups.

“I’ve played with Mala at Munster and I know what he can do and I’ve played against Charles Piutau when he was at Ulster. We know we have to be on it or else we’ll get punished,” conceded Earls.

“Like all the Pacific Island teams, it’s going to be a really physical contest. We’re going to have to be switched on in defence. They have some really incredibly good athletes.”

There will certainly be no quarter asked or given as Ireland look to make it two pool wins out of two, while a fired-up Tonga aim for a big scalp which would bring back memories of their famous 19-14 victory over France at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Fekitoa himself commented: “It will be pretty weird to play against them, especially the Irish boys. I had a really good connection with those boys, they looked after me when I was there at Munster.

“Probably more connected because we won the Championship. Those memories will last a lifetime. I will give everything on the pitch, and it’ll be the same for Ireland.”

Meanwhile, having finished last season as a Six Nations and URC medal winner, Casey says that ending Munster’s long trophy drought gave him some added confidence to take into his first ever senior World Cup.

Hoping that he can make his tournament debut at Nantes’ Stade de la Beaujoire, the 24-year-old acknowledged: “First off it’s probably a goal you’ve had since you’ve first started watching Munster growing up, to win trophies with Munster. To tick off one of those is brilliant.

Coming into World Cup camp it would give you a little confidence boost knowing that you’ve played in big games, and obviously looking at the World Cup group, you’ve got South Africa there. So to play over there a good few weeks and to win down there is 100% brilliant.

“To kind of show the coaches that you’ve been down in South Africa and you’ve played against physical teams and come through it, that’s definitely something.

To win a trophy with Munster is obviously a huge goal ticked off but you want to win more. It’s kind of drove on that spark to win a World Cup.”

He added: “If I get the chance I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve a few family members out, they’re following the team for a few weeks, so it would be unbelievable to make my World Cup debut if it happens.

“Obviously when you’re part of a squad and only 23 can play, going into a tournament you know you’re not going to play every minute.

“Every player knows that and you kind of have to be ready for when the opportunity does come, and when it does come you’ve got to take it with both hands and try and cement your place for the weekend after that.

“Everyone’s itching to go, even the lads that played last week are itching to get back onto the field, so it’s a real buzz around the squad.”

Last Saturday’s 82-8 triumph over Romania in baking Bordeaux marked a 15th World Cup appearance for Earls, who remains Ireland’s record World Cup try scorer with eight tries.

He is closing in on the Irish RWC caps record of 17, which is jointly held by Brian O’Driscoll and the team’s current forwards coach Paul O’Connell. However, personnel accolades will not count for much in the coming weeks unless Ireland continue to deliver results.

Earls is in no doubt that Andy Farrell’s men can achieve big things at this World Cup, remarking: “We’ve obviously achieved a lot and we know when we’re on it and we’re switched on and we play our game-plan, we know we’re well capable of competing and doing special things.

“But, again, I know it’s a cliché and you’ve always heard it from us, we won’t be looking past Saturday.

“Obviously we’ve touched on it and it’s something we’re confident of in our ability. We’ll be looking to go deep if we reach our standards.”

The 35-year-old, who loved hearing the Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’, a real Limerick and Munster anthem of recent years, get an airing at the stadium after the Romania match, reckons this Ireland side are better equipped now to deal with the pressure of a World Cup.

“(Camp at this World Cup is) definitely a bit more relaxed, I think, in the environment. We know how to deal with pressure a lot better now as a group.

“We know how big these tournaments are. We’ve had a good welcome in Tours, it’s been great. We’ve had great moments along the line, and we’re creating good memories off the field as well.

“It’s something we’ve never had in the past, having our families over with us. They can all experience it with us as well. I’ve had a great pre-season, I’ve done every session and the young boys are keeping me young as well! It’s great.”

Fellow Limerick man Casey says the buzz in the Ireland set-up has been really good for ‘the last two or three years’, but it has ‘definitely increased’ since Farrell’s charges have arrived in France.

That feel-good factor will continue if Casey and company can win Ireland’s first meeting with Tonga since 2003 and build further momentum heading into their remaining pool encounters with 2019 champions South Africa and Scotland.

“The excitement levels in the group are brilliant, but also mixing in a lot of hard work obviously. The first two weeks we landed here were definitely hard work, but we’re mixing it with the craic as well so it’s a very enjoyable place to be.

“We know we have to go up another level. We’ve obviously played Samoa and Fiji over the last year or so, so we know how tough the Pacific Island teams are. It’s going to be a tough test and we’ve got to be at our best.

“There’s some serious players who have come back to Tonga that have shown their hand at previous World Cups and that have a lot of experience behind them.

“I think (William) Havili at 10 has a very good boot. He’s a very smart player as well, so he’ll probably put them around the place nicely and get their big ball carriers into the game. I know how physical Mala can be, so we’re expecting that this weekend,” added the Shannon clubman.