Some may have expected more changes in personnel, but Ireland head coach Andy Farrell says his strong team selection is out of due respect to Tonga, the 20th and final team to play at this Rugby World Cup.
Farrell is understandably eager to avoid any slip ups in Nantes on Saturday night and his starting XV reflects that, with Mack Hansen, Conor Murray, Josh van der Flier and fit-again hooker Ronan Kelleher all returning to the side.
Despite Tonga being ranked 15th in the world and having never made it beyond the World Cup’s pool stages, they still boast players of the calibre of Malakai Fekitoa, Salesi Piutau, and captain Ben Tameifuna who is part of a beefy front row weighing a collective 387 kilos.
The Tongans will be looking to take a leaf out of Samoa’s book, as they led Ireland at half-time recently and only lost 17-13 in the end. Fiji also scored two tries at the Aviva Stadium last November, with Farrell dubbing it a ‘poor’ performance from the hosts.
Knowing how tough it can be to get a result against the Pacific Island teams, the Ireland boss said of his selection for round two: “(It’s) a bit of continuity from last week. It’s a different game, a different challenge, Tonga, isn’t it? Respecting the opposition is absolutely at the forefront of our mind. Respecting the competition, but more so respecting ourselves.
“Every game is of the same importance for us. A strong side is what we’ve got anyway within the group of 33, like I explained last week. Here we go again.
“It’s a little bit different when you’ve played one game and your recovery is different and you’re rowing into the next week, and how we’ve handled that has been pretty important as well.”
Fresh from becoming Ireland’s oldest men’s international player and all-time top World Cup points scorer, Jonathan Sexton leads the team again and has Murray starting alongside him for the 69th time, extending their Irish record for most appearances as a half-back pairing.
Ireland’s starting line-up has a total of 819 caps – 45 more than last week against Romania – with van der Flier’s inclusion seeing Peter O’Mahony, the two-try Mastercard player-of-the-match from the first round, reverting to blindside flanker. Tadhg Beirne slots back into the second row.
Craig Casey, Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird and Ross Byrne are all in line to make their World Cup debuts off the bench, while Dave Kilcoyne and Robbie Henshaw are back from their respective hamstring injuries to join the replacements.
Asked if he was tempted to rotate the squad more given they face South Africa on Saturday week, Farrell admitted: “There’s always temptation because as far as selection is concerned, we go through every single different type of permutation.
“But at the end of the day it’s what is right for the team. Finding form, that side that played last week hadn’t played together before. We get to roll onto this one. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, really, in some circumstances.
But the only thing that I care about is winning this weekend because the points that are on offer are exactly the same as what’s coming down the line. It’s as simple as that.
“You look at what could happen, what does happen to people in training. You give people a so-called rest…I mean we had Robbie (Henshaw) pull out at the Captain’s Run last week and miss the game.
“You’ve players now that are getting injured in training and missing the competition, so people could be resting this weekend and be ill for next week, etc. So we’d like to go with what we’ve got – a fit side, a good side – and build the momentum through the competition.”
This is only the third time that Ireland and Tonga have played each other at Test level. Ireland won 32-9 at Ballymore during the inaugural World Cup back in 1987, and two tries each from Guy Easterby and John Kelly helped them win a 2003 tour match (40-19) in Nuku’alofa.
1999 World Cup winner Toutai Kefu is in his second spell as Tonga’s head coach. They have won 17 of their 45 games under the former Australia number 8, including their most recent back-to-back victories over Canada (28-3 and 36-12).
Before that, Kefu’s charges lost to Fiji (36-20), Japan (21-16) and Samoa (34-9) in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup. This year they have averaged 21.8 points and three tries per match, and a highlight of their defence has been their ability to disrupt opponents at maul time.
Ahead of his 40th Test in charge of Ireland, Farrell, who has a win ratio of 82%, commented: “We know the (Tonga) coaches and how they like to plan. We’ve watched every single game that they’ve played over the summer, and there’s been plenty of them.
“You say that they’ve not played many tier 1 nations, but they’ve played some big games and stood up in those games.
“I think what you’re saying there about personnel and people coming in for the first time (there are four former All Blacks in the Tongan team), they’ve been training within that group. All they’re going to do is make those performances that we’ve seen stronger.”
The Wigan man added: “I said a couple of weeks ago in regards to the Samoa game that there’s a lot of similarities in that week to this week, with the type of personnel that we’re coming up against.
“We need to step up in that regard because we surely know that Tonga are going to see this as a great way to start their competition.
“We’re fit, we’re determined and we’ve been on point with our attitude this week, and it needs to be that because we need to take a step forward. The squad at this moment is in great form and great spirits, but Tonga will have something to say about that.”