Ireland continued their fine start to the 2023 Rugby World Cup after they thrashed Tonga 59-16 at the Stade de la Beaujoire on Saturday.
Tougher tests await in South Africa and Scotland but on the evidence of their opening two matches, Andy Farrell’s men look in fine shape.
Against a talented Pacific Island outfit – on paper at least – the European team were excellent, running in eight tries in total.
Johnny Sexton, on his second game back following injury and suspension, once again impressed and broke Ronan O’Gara’s points record when he touched down after 38 minutes.
The fly-half also added four conversions and a penalty before he was replaced at the break, with Ross Byrne coming on to kick the extras to scores from James Lowe, Bundee Aki (twice) and Rob Herring.
Tadhg Beirne initially set the ball rolling, while Caelan Doris and Mack Hansen also crossed the whitewash in the first period.
The world’s top-ranked nation comfortably maintained their 100 per cent start to the tournament and emerged relatively unscathed, moving towards pivotal Paris appointments with the Springboks and Scotland.
Despite the looming threat of the reigning world champions, head coach Andy Farrell named an extremely strong starting XV showing just four personnel changes from last weekend’s thumping 12-try triumph over Romania.
His side, unfamiliar in white shirts, were once again heavily backed on the terraces and met Tonga’s Sipi Tau by taking a collective step forward.
Sexton slotted an early penalty to increase the volume, but William Havili landed a long-range reply to level before Ireland were frustrated to have an Andrew Porter try disallowed for a knock-on by Hansen.
The disappointment proved to be fleeting as Farrell’s men remained on the front foot, culminating in Beirne collecting Doris’ pass and touching down under the posts for his third score of the tournament.
Havili landed another audacious penalty from close to halfway to cut Tonga’s deficit, but their hopes of a first win over the Six Nations champions were swiftly reduced by costly indiscipline.
Lowe was clattered in his own 22 by opposing wing Solomone Kata, gifting Ireland a penalty at the other end of the field from which Doris powered over.
Hansen – one of four men recalled by Farrell – then superbly danced through the opposition defence wide on the right to stretch the scoreboard, leading to Sexton equalling O’Gara’s previous national record.
Sexton overtook his former fly-half rival in memorable fashion to secure the bonus point.
🔥 RECORD BREAKING SCORE!
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The 38-year-old effortlessly slipping through Tonga’s defence to touch down and then celebrated jubilantly with fans seated behind the posts before regaining his composure to add a simple conversion.
Ireland were threatening to blitz the stunned underdogs.
Yet Tonga roared back and, during a series of penalties close to the Irish line, O’Mahony was sin-binned before former All Black Vaea Fifita shrugged off an early injury issue to power over.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 16, 2023
Ireland changed their entire front-row at the break while wrapping Sexton in cotton wool.
Yet replacement tighthead prop Finlay Bealham departed for a head injury assessment after Havili kicked his third penalty of the evening, requiring the swift return of Tadhg Furlong before substitute hooker Herring had a try chalked off on review.
Lowe eventually claimed Ireland’s fifth and official man-on-the-match Aki then propelled himself to the top of the tournament’s embryonic try-scoring charts with a quick-fire brace, all converted by Sexton’s replacement Ross Byrne.
Ireland were relatively untroubled in the second period, and Herring sealed another statement win – a 15th in succession overall – ahead of two critical fixtures in the French capital.
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Conor Murray, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Craig Casey, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Robbie Henshaw
Tonga: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Afusipa Taumoepeau, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Solomone Kata, 10 William Havili, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Vaea Fifita, 7 Sione Talitui, 6 Tanginoa Halaifonua, 5 Halaleva Fifita, 4 Sam Lousi, 3 Ben Tameifuna (c), 2 Paula Ngauamo, 1 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi
Replacements: 16 Sam Moli, 17 Tau Koloamatangi, 18 Sosefo Apikotoa, 19 Semisi Paea, 20 Solomone Funaki, 21 Sione Vailanu, 22 Sonatane Takulua, 23 Fine Inisi
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Matthew Carley (England), Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Tom Foley (England)