Ireland v Tonga: Johnny Sexton to captain Irish team in second Rugby World Cup game

Ireland play their second Rugby World Cup match against Tonga in Nantes on Saturday night

A week on from his 65-minute comeback after an absence of almost six months, Johnny Sexton will lead out the Ireland team in their second Rugby World Cup pool game against Tonga in Nantes on Saturday night (kick-off 9pm local time/8pm Irish).

Sexton’s selection is a measure of the seriousness with which Andy Farrell and his captain are taking the Tongans, as is a strong selection overall showing just four changes in personnel from the starting XV for last week’s opening 82-8 win over Romania in Bordeaux.

Mack Hansen, a late call-up to the bench last week, makes his first World Cup start, with the only other change in the backline being the promotion of Conor Murray at scrumhalf.

Likewise, Ronan Kelleher and Josh van der Flier are also promoted from the bench in the starting pack, with Peter O’Mahony reverting to blindside and Tadhg Beirne returning to the secondrow.


There are a potential four World Cup debutants on the bench in the shape of Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey and Ross Byrne. The only four players who have yet to feature in the tournament are Dan Sheehan, who was not risked, Jack Conan, Stuart McCloskey and Jimmy O’Brien.

“Yeah, a bit of continuity from last week,” said Farrell in explaining the selection. “it’s a different game, a different challenge, Tonga, respecting the opposition is absolutely at the forefront of our minds, respecting the competition but more so respecting ourselves.

“Every game is of the same importance for us and a strong side is what we’ve got within the squad of 33 anyway, as I’ve explained last week, so here we go again.

“It’s a little bit different when you’ve played one game and your recovery is different and you’re rowing into the next week and how we’ve handled that has been pretty important as well.”

While Farrell admitted there had been a temptation to rotate more, save for Jamison Gibson-Park being rested and Dan Sheehan not being risked, this is the same starting XV that played in the warm-up over England, tellingly he said his thinking was in part down to this team “finding form”.

He added: “Finding form, that side that played last week, hadn’t played together before. We get to roll on to this one and you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t really in some circumstances. But 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.

“I suppose it’s as simple as that and you look at what could happen, what does happen to people in training. You give people a so-called rest and you’ve seen people ... I mean, we had Robbie (Henshaw) pull out of our captain’s run last week and miss the game. You have players now getting injured in training and missing the competition.

“So, people could be rested this weekend and be ill for next weekend etc. We’d like to go with what we’ve got, a fit side, a good side and build the momentum throughout the competition.”

In all of this, Farrell is just being true to himself, not over-thinking things, and if injuries happen, they happen. This being a clean slate, nor is his thinking remotely informed by the loss to Japan four years ago.

“Never. Everyone keeps talking about four years ago and I understand why from you guys’ point of view but we’re a different team, different circumstances, it’s a different competition. We move on. It’s never been talked about at all.”

Importantly, with the pool stages being afforded an extra week more than any of the previous nine World Cups, akin to every other team, Ireland thus have a rest week after the pivotal game against South Africa on Saturday week.

Sexton was clearly of a mind to play in this game, and when he was asked if Farrell needed any convincing to let him do so, said: “Like, I don’t have any say in selection, I just ...”

Farrell interjected by quipping: “He does, he picks the side.”

Laughing that off, Sexton added: “I just rock up to training and do my best. Obviously, I want to play, I mean when you only have a certain amount of games left of course you want to play.

“But it’s what is right for the team, what is right for different individuals and that was probably all taken into consideration but no, I didn’t have to do much talking.”

Sexton also stressed: “Tonga are a really good team and they have got some really, really good players, they’ve had a massive boost with the players who have come back so some of the questions aren’t really reflecting the way we’re preparing and the way we’re talking within camp.

“So, we’re expecting a very tough game against top class opposition with very good coaches. It’s going to be a tough game.”

Sexton also goes into this game requiring 10 points to overtake Ronan O’Gara’s all-time Irish record of 1,083 points, which sounds almost like a distraction for him.

“I don’t know, it’s not something that comes into my head too often,” he said. “Obviously I was unaware how close I was after the game last week until I came into the press conference and so now I’m getting reminded again.

“Look, it will be a very special moment individually but no one else will really care, none of my team-mates are. I won’t be making decisions off the back of it.

“I want to win the game, I want to progress further in the competition and that is the only thing going through my head at the moment.”

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

Replacements: Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times