Not much consideration was given by Ireland to cotton-balling front-liners from the Rugby World Cup game against Tonga on Saturday, a week before the blockbuster pool match with defending champion South Africa.
Top-ranked Ireland went virtually all in on Tonga, even closer to full strength than it was while romping against Romania 82-8 last weekend. Bolstering the side on Thursday were flanker Josh van der Flier, the world player of 2022, veteran scrumhalf Conor Murray, hooker Ronan Kelleher and first-choice right wing Mack Hansen.
The risk of losing a front-liner to injury before the Springboks showdown was acute, but then the exit from the tournament on Thursday of Scotland's Dave Cherry after slipping on stairs showed there was risk anywhere.
“Respecting the opposition is absolutely at the forefront of our minds, respecting the competition, but more so respecting ourselves,” coach Andy Farrell said. "Every game is of the same importance for us and a strong side is what we've got anyway within the group of 33.”
But Ireland's best side has played only twice since sweeping the Six Nations; the last home warmup against England and against Romania. As good as Ireland played in both, neither contest was ideal preparation for what the Springboks will bring.
“We've been on point as far as our attitude this week, and it needs to be that because we need to take a step forward,” Farrell said. “The squad at this moment in time is in great form, in great spirits. Tonga will have something to say about that.”
In anticipation of a strong challenge from Tonga, Farrell has gone full steam ahead and given a second straight start to linchpin Jonathan Sexton.
Sexton excelled against Romania in his first match in six months. In 66 minutes, he bagged two tries and kicked seven of eight between the posts. But Romania wasn't a great sweat. Sexton, who is retiring after the World Cup, said he wanted to play Tonga and Farrell was happy to give his captain more needed game time.
Sexton and Murray will reunite for a 69th test together.
But they're not going to face who they expected.
Tonga dropped its captain and most experienced player — Sonatane Takulua — to the reserves for the first time since July 2015.
At scrumhalf instead was Augustine Pulu, one of four former New Zealand players in the starting lineup for the ‘Ikale Tahi’s opening match.
Takulua became the first Tonga player to 50 caps in July and has more minutes than any of his teammates this year. But coach Toutai Kefu chose Pulu, who won two All Blacks caps in 2014, to renew his partnership with flyhalf William Havili from the 2022 tour to Romania.
The captaincy went to former New Zealand Under-20s tighthead prop Ben Tameifuna. He makes up a huge front row with loosehead Siegfried Fisi'ihoi and hooker Paula Ngauamo. Between them, they weigh 387 kilograms.
“Scrum time will be huge for us, we're going to have a crack,” Tameifuna said. “The game starts up front.”
Tonga's starting lineup has only four changes from the side which lost to Samoa 34-9 in Apia in August to end the Pacific Nations Cup winless.
Ngauamo replaced Siua Maile, Scarlets lock Sam Lousi was in for Steve Mafi, Pulu was promoted, and Treviso-bound Malakai Fekitoa replaced another former All Black at center, George Moala. Moala was suspended for a tip tackle, and will miss Tonga’s three hardest pool games against Ireland, Scotland and South Africa.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.
Tonga: Charles Piutau, Afusipa Taumoepeau, Malakai Fekitoa, Pita Ahki, Solomone Kata, William Havili, Augustine Pulu; Vaea Vifita, Sione Talitui, Tanginoa Halaifonua, Leva Fifita, Sam Lousi, Ben Tameifuna (captain), Paula Ngauamo, Siegfried Fisi'ihoi. Reserves: Sam Moli, Tau Koloamatangi, Sosefo Apikotoa, Semisi Paea, Solomone Funaki, Sione Vailanu, Sonatane Takulua, Fine Inisi.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby