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Ireland continue their Rugby World Cup campaign on Saturday evening by taking on Tonga in Nantes.
Andy Farrell’s men are seeking a second successive Pool B win ahead of pivotal Paris appointments with South Africa and Scotland after beginning the competition with a thumping 82-8 success over Romania.
Here, the PA news agency picks out some of the main talking points.
With the formidable Springboks looming large, there were suggestions head coach Farrell may make sweeping changes to his starting line-up. But the Englishman has resisted temptation and gone almost full strength. Only sidelined hooker Dan Sheehan and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park are missing from arguably his preferred XV. Farrell made clear he wishes to prioritise the immediate challenge rather than become preoccupied by potential injury setbacks and the forthcoming threat of the reigning world champions. Some fans and pundits disagree with that logic. Only time will tell if it is the correct call.
Sexton seeking more history
Johnny Sexton returned with a bang in Bordeaux. His first competitive outing in almost six months following injury and suspension included two tries as part of a 24-point haul. The impressive return propelled him above Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s leading World Cup points scorer (102) on the day he became his country’s oldest international. Further history beckons for the 38-year-old in Nantes. He needs just 10 more points to surpass O’Gara as Ireland’s outright record points scorer. Captain Sexton, who will retire after the tournament, is not contemplating personal glory. “It will be a very special moment individually but no-one else will really care,” he said.
Avoiding deja vu
Ireland require little reminder of the risks of underestimating weaker opposition at the World Cup. With influential fly-half Sexton rested, they were stunned by hosts Japan under Joe Schmidt in 2019, which ultimately led to a quarter-final exit at the hands of New Zealand. Farrell was assistant to Schmidt back then. But he insists the upset in Shizuoka has not influenced his strong selection. Ireland only need to look back to Thursday evening, when a second-string France side survived a major scare against Uruguay, for further evidence of the dangers posed by emerging nations.
Tough start for Tonga
Tonga have been drawn in the tournament’s trickiest pool, with the world’s top-ranked nation up first. Toutai Kefu’s side, who had a weekend off in round one, are well aware of their underdog status. “We’re not delusional to the challenge we face,” said assistant coach Tyler Bleyendaal. Yet the ranks of the Pacific islanders have been significantly bolstered thanks to a change of international eligibility rules. Former All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa, a World Cup winner in 2015, Charles Piutau, Augustine Pulu and Vaea Fifita are among their starting XV. Bleyendaal anticipates a physical encounter. “We’re here to really fire some shots,” said the former Munster player.
The heat is on
Ireland will welcome a significant reduction in temperature following the scorching conditions endured at Stade de Bordeaux. Farrell’s players defied heat of 36 degrees Celsius to run in 12 tries against Romania, while it was again uncomfortably warm on Friday afternoon when they trained at Stade de la Beaujoire. The forecast for Saturday’s 9pm kick-off local time is a more manageable 22 degrees, with light winds, clear skies and a low chance of precipitation following possible thundery showers earlier in the day. That said, humidity is expected to be high and will add to the intensity as Ireland once again bid to deliver under pressure.
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