Ireland accounted for Tonga 59-16 and also accounted for all fingers, toes, arms and legs in mostly good order after a successful Rugby World Cup gamble this morning (NZT).
The Irish first team was risked for a second straight match to build up a head of steam for their showdown with defending champion South Africa next weekend and the risk paid off. Backup tighthead prop Finlay Bealham came off and appeared to be the only injury.
But Ireland’s key players came through unscathed, they got the bruising hit-out needed, and a Tonga team self-described as its best ever was taken apart clinically.
As a bonus, captain Jonathan Sexton tallied 16 more points and passed Ronan O’Gara and Neil Jenkins to fourth on the all-time international points list. Sexton, playing his second match after six months out, was rested at halftime and watched his teammates almost double a 31-13 interval lead.
They looked ready to meet the Springboks, extending their winning streak to 15 tests with their second-best World Cup victory, one week after the best, 82-8 against Romania.
A lot of attention on Tonga was paid to four former All Blacks it fielded and they enhanced a tough team which has been around the block. Tonga’s average age of 29-plus is second in the tournament only to South Africa. But in its first game, it wasn’t sharp or in sync — the defense was ragged.
Still, Ireland needed every drop of its own considerable experience to contain them, and was ruthless against Tonga errors.
Sexton got the show rolling with a penalty kick after the shot clock finished. Tonga queried referee Wayne Barnes, who said it was not his job to enforce the clock.
Ireland took until the 21st minute to score its first try of eight in total, finished by Tadhg Beirne after Sexton switched play to Caelan Doris bursting off a ruck.
Flyhalf William Havili’s second penalty kept Tonga in touch at 10-6 but teammate Solomone Kata made two costly errors that Ireland used to skip away.
Kata’s late charge into James Lowe conceded a lineout that Ireland mauled to the line for Doris’ try. Then Kata’s kick out on the full gave away another lineout after which winger Mack Hansen scored a brilliant solo try. Ireland beat 17 defenders in the first half and Hansen beat at least six in his run.
Half an hour in, Ireland led 24-6 after three converted tries. Two other tries weren’t given due to a knock on and a try-saving tackle by Havili.
Thanks to the hard-carrying forwards, Sexton’s and Conor Murray’s 69th test together was one of their best. Murray could snipe, and his break with Garry Ringrose in support put Sexton in between the posts. Sexton was ecstatic and coach Andy Farrell pumped his fists.
Tonga wasn’t impressed and strung its best plays together of the night. That caused a professional foul by Peter O’Mahony, whose yellow card was Ireland’s first in 14 months. Tonga finally got a try by No. 8 Vaea Fifita charging off a scrum, which Ireland couldn’t move all night.
But halftime merely delayed Ireland’s ambition. More tries were added by James Lowe, Bundee Aki, who got two, and Rob Herring, who had one rubbed off earlier for a double movement.