Ireland v Tonga: Andy Farrell’s line-up for Saturday a logical choice

Irish team selected for Saturday has echoes of 2007 Rugby World Cup but makes utter sense

A strong selection will have been the common reaction when Ireland’s team was unveiled on Thursday afternoon, but the more this Saturday’s Rugby World Cup Tongan game in Nantes (kick-off 9pm local time/8pm Irish) loomed into view, the more logical it became that Andy Farrell would name a side close to first choice.

It also makes utter sense.

Granted it has echoes of the 2007 World Cup in France when Ireland backed up an unimpressive win over Namibia by making only once change for the even nervier 14-10 win over Georgia in Bordeaux. Eddie O’Sullivan might even reflect ruefully that in retaining 11 of last week’s starting 15 in an 82-8 win over Romania, Farrell has faced nothing like the same flak.

Given all but the rested Jamison Gibson-Park and the recuperating Dan Sheehan, this selection also retains 13 of the side which beat England in Ireland’s second warm-up win. Not dissimilarly Farrell also cited the need to find more form a week before the pivotal engagement with the reigning world champions, South Africa, in Paris.


Yet there are a couple of important differences. First, the additional week afforded the pool stages compared to all previous nine World Cups means Ireland have a rest week after the South African game. Second, even if the defeat by Japan has not remotely informed his thinking, the threat posed by a fired-up, passionate Tongan team with several seriously talented players making their World Cup debut is even greater than that posed by Georgia 16 years ago.

There may be misgivings about so many frontliners being rolled out, notably Johnny Sexton. But Farrell takes the view that injuries can happen any time, even in training, or as happened with Scotland, falling in a hotel, and as can illness.

There is one other consideration which Farrell, who tends not to overthink things, crystallised succinctly and accurately.

“The only thing that I care about is winning this weekend because the points that are on offer is exactly the same as what’s coming down the line.”

And therein lies the rub. The match points are the same as will be on offer against South Africa or Scotland!

It comes with no guarantees, but Ireland arrive at this embryonic stage of the tournament in a reasonably good place after 12 weeks together

It is a long shot, and does not mean to count chickens prematurely, but it is conceivable that Ireland could have at least one foot in the quarter-finals before they face Scotland, or at any rate will be grateful for any points they accrue against Tonga.

Under a heavy security presence, the squad made the hour-and-a-half transfer north by TGV from their base in Tours to their hotel on the outskirts of Nantes in Brittany, to be welcomed by cloudless sapphire blue skies and even warmer temperatures in the high 20s.

Mack Hansen, Conor Murray, Ronan Kelleher and Josh van der Flier have all been promoted from the bench, with Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony reverting to lock and blindside, compared to last week’s team. Among the replacements, Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey and Ross Byrne are all in line for their World Cup debuts.

It comes with no guarantees, but Ireland arrive at this embryonic stage of the tournament in a reasonably good place after 12 weeks together.

“I think so, yeah,” said Farrell, if adding the rider: “I mean, proof is in the pudding, (but) I definitely think so. I think to start a competition against a side like Romania last week, it was a challenge within itself, because we wanted to, obviously, get out of that game and we did that. To score 80 points in any game, against any type of opposition is very hard to do to stay on point throughout, but we managed to do that. We need to do that in a different kind of way this week.”

A week after setting a new, if slightly unwanted landmark of being Ireland’s oldest ever international rugby player, should Sexton score ten points or more in this game he would overtake Ronan O’Gara’s all-time Irish record of 1,083 points – something he seemed to regard as a slight distraction.

Farrell was clear-cut in his belief that Sheehan will be fit for the game against the Springboks, in contrast to the unfortunate Malcolm Marx

“There is not one area, we want to improve in all areas,” he said, ever the taskmaster/perfectionist. “You talk about good attack, there is plenty of bad attacking in there. 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, for the next week, but also just learn. We gave away some silly penalties, a couple of bad kick-offs, a couple of bad 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.

Encouragingly, although Sheehan wasn’t risked after sustaining a slightly torn ligament in his foot against England which initially threatened his World Cup, Farrell was clear-cut in his belief that the hooker will be fit for the game against the Springboks, in contrast to the unfortunate Malcolm Marx.

“Yes, he’s ticked all the boxes this week,” Farrell said of Sheehan. “He had to get through set-piece stuff this week for the first time, scrummaging mainly, and he did half a session on Tuesday to see how the reaction was going to be, and a full session on Wednesday, and he’d no qualms to kick on for the rest of the week as well. He’ll be available for selection for next week.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley in Tours

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times