Andy Farrell insists Ireland are peaking at the right time

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell insists his side are peaking at the right time after routing Romania, as he calls on his near-full-strength team to continue to build momentum against Tonga

  • Ireland thrashed Romania in their opening game of the World Cup last weekend
  • Andy Farrell is happy with how his side are building momentum in France
  • He has called for another dominant performance against Tonga on Saturday 
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

A confident Andy Farrell believes Ireland are ready to step up their World Cup campaign against Tonga – but he’s gambling on the durability of his main men after picking a near-full-strength team for Saturday’s clash.

Ireland are expected to comprehensively deal with the challenge of a side who have only beaten Canada recently, but Farrell has picked 13 of his regular 15 starters for the game, including 38 year old Johnny Sexton at fly half, and irreplaceable stars like full-back Hugo Keenan, props Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, defensive leader Garry Ringrose and powerhouse No8 Caelan Doris.

Of his strongest side, only Jamison Gibson-Park is rested, while Dan Sheehan is given another week to recover from the foot injury he sustained last month.

Farrell, who emphatically dismissed any suggestion that the returning Mack Hansen had been left out of the initial match-day squad for last week’s game against Romania for disciplinary reasons, said he picked a strong side out of respect for Tonga, the competition and his own squad.

And three months after bringing his players together for pre-season, Farrell believes his team are at exactly the level he wants them to be, two weeks into the tournament.

Andy Farrell feels Ireland are exactly where they want to be in the early stages of the World Cup

His team proved why they are one of the tournament favourites by thrashing Romania 

‘I think so, yeah,’ he said at their hotel in Nantes on Thursday afternoon. ‘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 (with a win) 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.’

He is undoubtedly taking a chance in picking so many regulars, however, given that Ireland play South Africa in Pool B’s decisive Test a week on Saturday.

The risk of injury is obvious, but so is the danger of a card and suspension given the refereeing inconsistencies that blighted the first round of matches.

Picking Sexton to start for the second time in seven days is undoubtedly one of the bigger risks Farrell is taking.

He was masterful against the hapless Romanians, but he is 38 and that game was his first in six months, after injury and suspension.

There is no player more crucial to Ireland’s hopes of breaking their quarter-final duck for the first time. And if the Tongans are limited, they are traditionally a team that relish physical exchanges.

However, Farrell is clearly counting on another start standing to Sexton for the steeper challenges to come.

‘There is not one area, we want to improve in all areas,’ Sexton said when asked where Ireland can get better after last week.

‘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, but also to next week, to just learn and (not) give away silly penalties, a couple of bad kick offs, a couple of bad penalties, kicks out on the full, stuff like that.

Picking the influential Johnny Sexton to face Tonga is a risk with a huge clash against South Africa just a week away

‘So (there were) 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.’

His 24-point haul against Romania moved Sexton to within nine points of Ronan O’Gara’s overall Irish scoring record, and if tomorrow night’s game goes to plan, he looks well placed to break it.

It was at the World Cup in New Zealand 12 years ago that the Sexton-O’Gara rivalry was at its most pronounced, with Sexton starting the famous pool win over Australia but subsequently losing his place, with O’Gara starting the dispiriting quarter-final defeat to Wales.

Their rugby lives have entwined since then, with O’Gara part of the coaching staff at Racing in Paris when Sexton spent two unhappy years in France.

It would constitute a significant achievement were Sexton to overhaul such a legendary figure, but he was down-playing its importance here, in the context of the wider team goals.

‘It’s not something that comes into my head too often,’ he insisted.

‘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. 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.’

Dan Sheehan (pictured) will not play this weekend, but will be ready to face South Africa

Ireland’s ambitions in that regard should be strengthened for that do-or-die clash with the Springboks in Paris in eight days’ time by the return of Sheehan.

He limped off in the first-half of the warm-up win against England in Dublin with damaged ligaments in his foot, but Farrell said he will be available next week.

‘He’s ticked all the boxes this week. 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.’

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