Andy Farrell is looking to gamble on full-strength Ireland squad

Andy Farrell is risking injuries and suspensions with his first-choice Ireland starting XV to face minnows Tonga – but the head coach has hardly made an incorrect decision in the last two seasons

  • Head coach has called on a near full strength side to face the 15th-ranked team 
  • But Farrell is keen to seen his gamble pay off in a bid to fine tune his squad 
  • Tonga pose a sharp threat for the favourites in players such as Charles Piutau 
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

It was all meant to be so different.

Ireland will play in a stadium on Saturday evening with a capacity of a little more than 35,000.

It is neat and pleasant-looking, its stands stretching up towards cloudless blue skies yesterday as the Ireland team went through their captain’s run, the final, gentle work-out before Saturday’s meeting with Tonga.

The stadium is formally called the Stade de la Beaujoire-Louis Fontenau, the final part of its title honouring a legendary former president of the local soccer club.

But there were plans in the late 2010s to go beyond charming, to embrace something bolder.

Ireland practised for the final time under cloudless blue skies in Nantes before meeting Tonga

Andy Farrell has gambled on fielding a strong squad against the nation’s second opponents

Ireland will look to fine tune their performance for stronger opposition, whilst also avoiding the perils of injury or suspension

As part of France’s 2023 World Cup bid, it was proposed to build a new stadium in Nantes, complete with retractable roof, 360-degree screen, and lots of other accoutrements deemed vital for the modern fan experience.

But local councillors rejected the plan and so the perfectly serviceable Stade de la Beaujoire will have to do for tonight’s action.


H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Lowe; J Sexton (capt), C Murray; A Porter, R Kelleher, T Furlong; T Beirne, J Ryan; P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris.

Replacements: R Herring, D Kilcoyne, F Bealham, I Henderson, R Baird, C Casey, R Byrne, R Henshaw.

Kick off: 8pm, Saturday

Change can be a forbidding prospect, and in many instances it is to be treated with suspicion. The many Irish supporters that will climb the steep steps of the ground in Nantes tonight will hardly feel deprived inside its neat environs.

Its 35,000 capacity is enough for the local soccer club, who have had an undistinguished start to their eleventh successive season in Ligue 1.

In other scenarios, though, change can be energising. And some cases, it is the pragmatic option.

The uncomfortable feeling persists that change for the Irish team this weekend belonged to the third category, and that in eschewing it, Andy Farrell is taking a risk that is not only substantial, but also unnecessary.

But it has become clear in the 24 hours since his unexpectedly strong side was announced that Farrell was leaving nothing to chance; he wants victory tidied away tonight with as little drama as possible, hence the line-up.

There is also the suspicion that the coaching team want to see a fluency in Ireland’s play that appeared in the second half against Romania, but at a point in the game when opponents in the lower reaches of the Test game’s second tier were spent.

Jagged edges were a feature of the efforts in their warm-up matches, too, and it appears that Farrell is taking advantage of Ireland’s relatively benign start to play his preferred team into their best form before the South Africa match in a week’s time.

The possible downsides are clear, and can be summed up in three words: injuries and suspension.

With his strong suit selected, though, what Farrell will want to see on Saturday is clear enough. He will look to see Johnny Sexton maintain the excellent form he immediately relocated in Bordeaux against the Romanians, in his first match in six months.

Johnny Sexton will play his second match in six months against Romania after a long spell on the sidelines – but so far shows no sign of rust

He will want the occasional defensive lapses of last week to be corrected, and he will want much tighter set-pieces, especially the line-outs.

Paul O’Connell was the first of the Irish coaches out on the grass for the captain’s run yesterday, and it looked like he was trying to make a video call.

When he re-emerged later, with the squad for company, he oversaw his fit hookers practicing some throwing to warm up. Josh van der Flier, who so commendably filled in as a line-out thrower in Murrayfield in the Six Nations, swung by to fire a neat throw into the long-handled net that scrum coach John Fogarty was holding up as a target.

Watching the hookers practice was a reminder of how precisely calibrated their skills must be. Not only has their throw to be accurate within millimetres, it must also find its target through a narrow corridor of space the opposition are doing their best to block off.

Then the jumpers and lifters must get their timing right, and all this with thousands of fans urging the hooker to get on with it.

But as coaches are so fond of saying, it’s called a Test match for a reason, and the truth is that Ireland’s line-out has been flunking for the past month.

If it is not restored to smooth functioning by kick-off time against the Springboks, then Ireland’s designs on victory in that match will struggle to be realised.

Farrell will want to see the Bundee Aki-Garry Ringrose combination continue in the vibrant manner that it performed against Romania, while his preferred back row will have a busy night with the Tongan freight that will come hurtling towards Irish players.

Ireland will be wearing white shirts, but if events go according to plan, they should be instantly recognisable to even the passing observer.

Farrell will look for another standout performance from Garry Ringrose (centre) in partnership with Bundee Aki

Although Ireland demolished Romania 82-8 there was still room for improvement for the side

Because the virtues of Ireland’s Farrell at their best are now clearly established, based around quick ruck ball, patient phase play when required and then explosions of attacking creativity.

This combination has left every major Test force in the world reeling at some point in the past two years, and it will be too much for Tonga.

But at what cost?

If the answer to that is minimal, come close of business tonight, then Farrell will be partly justified. Yet even then, his selection will only be properly assessed after the South Africa game, when it will be possible to see the effects, if any, of obliging the same core group to play three matches in succession.

Farrell’s selection decisions heightened the feeling that this is all getting more serious for Ireland now.

When the team arrived in Bordeaux last week for the opening game, Farrell talked about the real business starting, but with a tougher challenge this week, comes the growing sense that they are one of the competition’s big deals.

More evidence was to be found on their arrival at the stadium for their run-out yesterday.

There were a host of motorcycle outriders, but as noticeable was the security detail that leapt out of a car that pulled up ahead of the bus.

A couple of square-shaped men with serious faces, absurdly large biceps and shirts that could have been sprayed on, leapt out and oversaw the disembarkation of the players belonging to the world’s No1 team.

And Ireland are important mainly because of Andy Farrell. He has proven an inspired choice as head coach, and in the past two seasons, he has hardly made an incorrect decision.

Tonga have missed out on opening weekend and will be looking for a sharp start versus Ireland

It’s why going with such a strong selection for this game has been met with near-uniform acceptance.

The Tongan threat is estimable, with Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa its most recognisable forms. Bruising hits and broken-field opportunism continue to illuminate Tonga’s best moments, and the Irish defence will get a work-out.

It should survive it, and the ideal outcome sees everyone then anticipating Paris with sick-bay empty.

That’s what Farrell has wagered.

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