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Sexton Braced For ‘Tough Game Against Top Class Opposition’

Sexton Braced For ‘Tough Game Against Top Class Opposition’

Jonathan Sexton is pictured during the Captain's Run at Nantes' Stade de la Beaujoire ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Jonathan Sexton says the return of the likes of Malakai Fekitoa and Vaea Fifita to play for the country of their birth is a ‘massive boost’ to Tonga’s Rugby World Cup aspirations.

Fekitoa and Fifita are two of four former All Blacks that will start for Tonga against Pool B leaders Ireland in Nantes on Saturday. Salesi Piutau and Augustine Pulu will also feature on what is sure to be an emotionally-charged night for ‘Ikale Tahi.

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In a nod to the skill and size of the Tongan team, which is led by 151-kg prop Ben Tameifuna, Andy Farrell has gone with one of his strongest available selections. There are just four changes from last week’s 82-8 win over Romania.

That means a second successive start for Sexton, who played his first game in six months against the Oaks. The Ireland captain comes into the second round as the tournament’s third leading points scorer with 24 points.

Tonga are one of the countries that have benefitted the most from the 2021 change to World Rugby’s eligibility laws that allows players to switch allegiance to a country with which they have links through their heritage.

Following in the footsteps of Donal Lenihan and Reggie Corrigan, who captained Ireland against Tonga in 1987 and 2003 respectively, Sexton said: “Tonga are a very good team and they’ve got some very, very good players. They’ve had a massive boost with their selection with the players that have come back to play for them.

“Some of the (media) questions, I suppose, aren’t really reflecting the way we’re preparing and the way we’re talking within camp. We’re expecting a very tough game against top class opposition with very good coaches.”

It such be an intriguing battle, particularly in the back-line with Piutau and centres Fekitoa and Pita Ahki all having experience of playing with Irish provinces. Another familiar face is assistant coach Tyler Bleyendaal, the former Munster out-half whose playing days were cruelly ended by a long struggle with neck injuries.

While praising Ireland for being a ‘pretty well-oiled machine’ and ‘how together they are’, Bleyendaal says Tonga are ‘here to fire some shots’ and spoke about their desire to win the collisions and show what they can do with ball in hand.

“We’re going to have to be quite physical, we’re going to have to win the breakdown battle, the tackle battle and have a really strong set-piece,” said the 33-year-old New Zealander.

“That’s the foundation of our game and that’s what we’re going to have to do on the weekend. We’re not delusional to the challenge we face, that’s for sure. We’re excited for the challenge.”

Sexton, who battled with Bleyendaal during previous Leinster-Munster duels, dismissed the suggestion that he might sit out this weekend’s clash given that defending champions South Africa are next up on the agenda.

However, as his retirement edges closer and with his lack of recent game-time through injury and suspension, the 38-year-old is relishing the opportunity to build on his two-try performance against Romania and maintain his impressive start to the tournament.

Obviously I want to play. I just rock up to training and do my best. When you only have a certain amount of games left in your career, of course you want to play.

“But it is what’s right for the team, what’s right for different individuals, and that was all probably taken into consideration.”

Although they have never made it out of the pool stages, Tonga have a decent World Cup pedigree which includes defeats of Italy, Samoa, Japan, France and the USA. They also ran the Springboks close in 2007, losing by just five points in Lens.

Toutai Kefu’s charges may take some inspiration from the fact that Nantes’ Stade de la Beaujoire played host to Fiji’s famous 38-34 victory over Wales during the 2007 World Cup, which saw the Pacific Islanders book their quarter-final place.

However, Tonga’s matchday squad is light on World Cup experience with nine RWC debutants in the starting XV and a further six on the bench. For Sexton, it will be about Ireland cutting down the errors and lifting their performance levels from last week.

“We want to improve in all areas. You talk about good attack (against Romania), there is plenty of bad attacking in there,” explained the Leinster star.

“You talk about good defence, there is a mix through all aspects of our game. We always take every game apart, positives and negatives. And just with the mindset to try and get better, but also to next week. To just learn.

“You give away silly penalties, a couple of bad kick-offs, a couple of bad penalties, kicks out on the full, stuff like that. So, lots of inaccuracies we hope to improve on this week, but then this week will bring up more challenges we’ll have to get right for the week after.”

Just a week on from becoming Ireland’s record World Cup points scorer with 102 points, Sexton could edge past his old team-mate Ronan O’Gara on the all-time list if he hits double figures against Tonga.

O’Gara has been at the top of Ireland’s scoring charts for a long time, ending his much-decorated career with 1083 points. He took the record from David Humphreys (560 points) in February 2006, and his successor in the number 10 jersey, Sexton, is now right behind him on 1074.

However, the 2018 World Player of the Year brushed off talk of adding to his long list of individual achievements, insisting:

(The record) is not something that comes into my head too often. Obviously unaware of how close (I am), like last week after the game it wasn’t until I came into the press conference, and now I’m reminded again.

“Look, it would be a very special moment individually but, like, no one else would really care, none of my team-mates.

“I won’t be making decisions based off the back of it. I want to win the game and I want to progress further in the competition, and that’s the only thing that’s going through my head at the moment.”