Ireland v Tonga: Johnny Sexton likely to be named in another strong Irish selection

Rugby World Cup: Robbie Henshaw set to return for Ireland after missing opener through injury

Johnny Sexton seems likely to be named as the starting outhalf again when the Ireland team to play their second Rugby World Cup Pool B game against Tonga on Saturday in Nantes is announced on Thursday afternoon.

The Irish captain made a successful 65-minute comeback after almost six months’ absence in their opening 82-8 win over Romania in the sweltering heat of Bordeaux last week when scoring two tries and landing seven out of eight conversions for a 24-point haul.

In becoming Ireland’s oldest ever international, despite his prolonged absence, Sexton looked fit and remarkably sharp all things considered, and afterwards referenced the Tongan game four times in making it abundantly clear he wanted to play in Nantes as well.

Assistant coach Simon Easterby said the captain’s participating would be determined after a conversation between Sexton and Andy Farrell, and all the indications are that Sexton will start.


Sexton has probably had too many non-starts in his three previous World Cups to want more of the same. He started the opening two games of the 2011 World Cup, including the win over Australia in Eden Park, before Declan Kidney named him on the bench behind Ronan O’Gara for the remaining three games, including the quarter-final defeat by Wales.

In 2015, he was injured for the quarter-final loss to Argentina, and four years ago Joe Schmidt decided not to risk for the pool defeat by Japan after an injury scare, even though he was fit by match day.

Furthermore, aside from recognising the greater threat posed by a dangerous looking Tongan side likely to include big game players such as Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa and Adam Coleman, also probably feels he needs more game before the pivotal game against the Springboks on Saturday week. Whatever selection strategy which Farrell and co mapped out in advance of the World Cup may well have altered after the last and least convincing of the warm-up wins against Samoa in Bayonne.

Played in torrential Basque rain, that looked a dry run, so to speak, for next Saturday’s game against Tonga’s fellow Pacific Islanders, when Wayne Barnes will again be the referee for a 9pm kick-off local time, with the long-range forecast suggesting another humid, wet night.

But now it would surely make more sense to pick a strong team, closer to that of last Saturday and a notional first-choice line-up, especially given the rest week which follows the South African game.

This is not a game for Ireland to suffer, to have an experience like the pool games against Georgia and Namibia in 2007 in Bordeaux, nor even the hard-pressed 17-13 win over Samoa in Bayonne.

Although Farrell publicly declared himself delighted that Ireland found a way to beat Samoa, there’s no denying the crucial role played by James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and Rob Herring.

It seemed pointed that Ryan and Caelan Doris were withdrawn before the hour mark against Romania, strongly suggesting they are likely to start again in Nantes, particularly with the repeated admissions that the lineout is a primary area for improvement this Saturday.

David Kilcoyne, Dan Sheehan and Robbie Henshaw all took a fully integrated part in training on Wednesday at the squad’s base in the Complexe de la Chambriere, with only Jack Conan – who was back running and on course to be fit next week – ruled out of the Tongan game.

Affording Kilcoyne and Sheehan some game time off the bench would make sense, as would starting Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher and perhaps Tadhg Furlong as well,

Tadhg Beirne looks sure to be involved in some way, which is another pointer towards Farrell understandably opting for a strong selection. Robbie Henshaw is a different case from Kilcoyne and Sheehan in that he had been named on the bench last week before withdrawing due to a slight, unspecified injury during the captain’s run. So there’s an argument for starting him.

It would be a surprise if Mack Hansen doesn’t start, while Craig Casey and Keith Earls look like having some involvement off the bench given their media appearances.

IRELAND (possible v Tonga): H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton, C Murray; A Porter, R Kelleher, T Furlong; I Henderson, J Ryan; T Beirne, J van der Flier, C Doris.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times