Rugby World CupMatch Preview

Rugby World Cup: Ireland looking to keep up momentum in tricky Tonga test

Irish fitness levels could be decisive against a Tongan team playing their first game in the tournament

Pool B: Ireland v Tonga, Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes, Saturday, 9pm French time/8pm Irish time – Live on RTÉ 2

The more this game nears, the more it seems to grow in interest and significance. In part it’s because of the novelty value – this is only the third occasion these countries have met and the first time in 20 years – and also because Ireland need to carry as much positive energy and momentum into next week’s crunch World Cup Pool B meeting with the Springboks.

To that end Andy Farrell and his team have to treat this as a one-off in its own right, and his selection betrays the seriousness with which he is treating Tonga. In all their utterances this week, the players have been on board with this message.

It being a game involving Ireland, there will be an estimated 15,000 Irish supporters in the 35,520 capacity crowd, and while the French neutrals will likely adopt Tonga and their array of big hitters and big carriers, judging by the throngs of green-clad fans milling around the centre ville it already seems like the Irish crowd could be even more.

A couple of Irish boys were even playing with a rugby ball in the Place du Buffay in front of their dads as others mingled in the outdoor bars and cafes. In temperatures of 27 degrees even at 8pm local time, one sincerely hopes they all brought spare green tops in this weather.


Alas the rain arrives on match day, although it is forecast to relent around four hours before kick-off, while it will remain warm, in the early 20s at least.

So while the conditions won’t be as sodden as in Bayonne when Samoa caused Ireland enormous discomfort, they’ll still be sticky and slippy, while Wayne Barnes, who allowed all manner of carnage at the breakdown, is again in charge, which usually brings a factor of its own.

Tonga may be disadvantaged in the latter stages of the pool by having their bye week at the start of the competition, but it means they’ll be ferociously fired up for their debut and what is the biggest game of their careers for many of them.

This applies even for their quartet of former All Blacks, fullback Salesi (Charles) Piutau, centre Malakai Fekitoa, scrumhalf Augustine Pulu and number eight Vaea Fifita.

Tonga’s results would suggest they are the least strong of the three Pacific Island teams, but Fiji’s performances lately against England and Wales, along with Samoa’s display in Bayonne, underlines that the threat from all three needs to be taken more seriously than ever.

They have some serious carriers up front – lock Sam Lousi is the Scarlets’ standout man. Pita Ahki, somewhat underrated yet a rock in the Toulouse midfield, and Malakai Fekitoa, outstanding for Munster in the second half of their URC-title winning campaign, will provide one hell of a duel with the in-form Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose.

And, of course, Piutau is a generational game breaker, who would have won way more than 24 caps for the All Blacks but for moving to the northern hemisphere.

“They’ve got some of the best openfield runners in world rugby,” admitted defence coach Simon Easterby on the eve of the match. They’ve got guys in the forward pack that can mix it, they can offload. And then in the backline, they’ve got attacking threats throughout their backline. It’s a real challenge for us defensively.”

Tonga’s starting XV contains seven players with the Top 14, including an entire frontrow featuring their 151kg captain Ben Tameifuna. No wonder Farrell opted for his best available frontrow.

“Sometimes in scrummaging, there’s no replacement for displacement,” said a cheery Tadhg Furlong, in using farming terminology according to himself, with regard to Tonga’s forward threat. “Weight makes it heavy, it makes it hard, that’s the challenge of it and it’s a big challenge from a big pack. Technically you have to be good.”

This is a tough pool for the Tongans, but judging by Toutai Kefu’s selection, they won’t be remotely inclined to hold back, as they seek a shock or two.

“That is why we’re here,” admitted assistant coach Tyler Bleyendaal, the one-time Munster outhalf. “I think the reality is they are much better, more complete teams than us because they compete at a much higher level of competition more often. But that doesn’t change our ambition, our preparation, to try and knock over all of the teams in our pool.

“We’re not delusional to the challenge we face but we are excited. It is definitely a goal to try to perform first and then the results are going to be what they are.”

With their array of ball carriers and their sense of occasion, Tonga are liable to cause Ireland some pain. That said, the suspicions lurks that the Tongans are a somewhat ageing side, and may possibly struggle for fitness over the full 80.

Ireland, admittedly, have their array of thirtysomethings, and it is the second most experienced Irish side to ever take the field in an international with 819 caps.

But they have looked super fit, like a squad who have nailed their pre-season. Ireland have prioritised their lineout, which has wobbled throughout the warm-up programme and even against Romania, and with James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony on board, it would certainly be timely if this was corrected.

And if Ireland can use their maul as they did in the second half against Samoa, and build scoreboard pressure, they can make this an altogether more comfortable watch. If they emerge intact with a bonus-point win, it will be a good night’s work.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster, capt), Conor Murray (Munster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Craig Casey (Munster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster).

TONGA: Salesi Piutau (Shizuoka); Afusipa Taumoepeau (Perpignan), Malakai Fekitoa (Treviso), Pita Ahki (Toulouse), Solomone Kata (Leicester); William Havili (Moana Pasifika), Augustine Pulu (Hino Red Dolphins); Siegfried Fisi’ihoi (Pau), Paula Ngauamo (Castres), Ben Tameifuna (Bordeaux, capt); Sam Lousi (Scarlets), Halaleva Fifita (Oyannax); Tanginoa Halaifonua (Stade Francais), Sione Talitui (Crusaders), Vaea Fifita (Scarlets).

Replacements: Sam Moli (Moana Pasifika), Tau Koloamatangi (Moana Pasifika), Sosefo Apikotoa (Moana Pasifika), Semisi Paea (New England Free Jacks), Solomone Funaki (Moana Pasifika), Sione Vailanu (Glasgow), Sonatane Takul (Agen), Fine Inisi (Moana Pasifika).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).

Past meetings – 1987, RWC: Ireland 32 Tonga 9. 2003: Ireland 49 Tonga 19.

Betting (Paddy Power): 1-200 Ireland, 50-1 Draw, 50-1 Tonga. Handicap odds (Tonga +38pts): 10-11 Ireland, 25-1 Draw, 10-11 Tonga.

Forecast: Ireland by 25-30.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times