Ireland v Tonga: Five takeaways from the Rugby World Cup clash as joint favourites flatten error-ridden Pacific Islanders

James While
Ireland's Bundee Aki and the Tonga Rugby team after the Rugby World Cup clash

Ireland's Bundee Aki and the Tonga team after the Rugby World Cup clash,

Following Ireland’s ruthless 59-16 victory over Tonga in the Rugby World Cup Pool B clash, here are our five takeaways.

Top line

Ireland were in compelling form in Nantes on Saturday night as they saw a powerful Tongan side out, scoring eight tries in the process.

Once again, Bundee Aki and Tadhg Beirne were excellent, with the former absolutely thunderous in his carrying all evening.

Ireland’s lineout, kick strategy and finishing were as sharp as ever and as Tonga tired so the tries kept rolling in. Andy Farrell had insisted that he wasn’t prepared to cut corners in selection coming into this game, and his policy was vindicated as Ireland continue on their upslope, underlining their credentials as joint World Cup favourites.

And of course, Ireland’s favourite fly-half, Johnny Sexton, celebrated taking the all-time scoring record for his country off his old pal Ronan O’Gara as he scooted over for his side’s third try in the first half.

If fantasy rugby is your bag, pick as many men in green as you can, as Ireland have managed 20 tries in their two pool games so far – their two biggest victories in their history at World Cups.

Aki’s importance

Aki was very much thought of as Ireland’s reserve inside centre behind test Lion Robbie Henshaw, but his form in the last six months has seen him become one of the best three-quarters in world rugby.

Above all, he gives that physical counterpoint to Ireland to allow their pod and round-the-corner runners to arrive in waves after Aki has taken that initial contact and committed two or three defenders through his power.

Alongside Garry Ringrose, and with a deadly back three around him, Ireland’s shape and system in attack is a league ahead of any other side in the tournament (even France), provided their forwards win enough ball.

One of the keys to their system is to give the ball carrier or half-back two options to fix the opposition’s defence. With ball carriers like Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris able to offer secondary carrying options in the wide channel, Ireland are looking sharper and sharper in their run into the knockout stages.

Breakdown duel

For lovers of technical chat around breakdowns, there was a lot to digest in this match. At times, Tonga caused Ireland no end of issues through sheer power and the moment rucks became a power wrestle, the men in red were always likely to come out on top.

However, you don’t become the number one ranked side in the world without a large dollop of streetwise intellect. Ireland reacted firstly by throwing as few into lost rucks as they could possibly get away with and in doing so, staying upright so they could step out freely and quickly, recycling back in the line to defend.

When the ball was loose or one single carrier became isolated only then did Ireland commit – and when they did so, they were swift, accurate and effective, with both Andrew Porter and Beirne leading their effort.

The last part of the brilliance of their ruck work is somewhat controversial – it’s that very streetwise slowing down by retreating slowly from offside or illegal positions, delivered innocently, professionally and very effectively. It’s subtle and rarely gets penalised, with the Irish loose forwards and locks very clever in getting themselves in borderline offside positions and then retreating whilst impeding half-backs and slowing ball.

Watch Aki innocently sealing in a Tongan tackler, or James Ryan blocking the half-back’s pass, or Van der Flier wandering over the ruck looking at the ref asking if he can play the ball when he knows darn well he can’t.

It’s streetwise work by a champion side and you kind of have to admire it and their adaptation and intellect in reacting to the challenge posed by Tonga was absolutely outstanding.

Self-inflicted errors

Tonga make life extremely hard for themselves at times, and Ireland benefitted from some ridiculously naïve thinking on a couple of occasions.

Solomone Kata saw himself make contact with James Lowe when the Irish flyer was clearing in his own half. By all means, impose yourself as a defender, but smashing into Lowe’s backside first was only going to result in a penalty and from the ensuing lineout, Caelan Doris drove over from a rolling maul.

A few moments later, a Havili failure to clear saw the ball come to Mack Hansen 25m out, and the Irish wing cut inside past three defending players, including Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau, to score a brilliant try. However, looking at the defensive work of two Test-quality players, both of whom went to close down the outside, leaving no-one defending the inside step was so poor it was almost comical. Havili repeated the feat again in the second half to compound his poor day at the office.

With five lineouts going astray, either through concentration lapses or technical errors, Tonga can leave this game frustrated with themselves and an error count that simply killed all of the good work they did with ball in hand.

Looking forward

On the one hand, Tonga will walk away from this game, pleased about the physical challenge they posed, but they should be extremely frustrated by their lack of accuracy and the number of gimmes they presented Ireland with.

But they can take great heart their scrummage did a big job on Ireland at times, especially towards the end of the match, and perhaps they should have had a lot more of a reward from the officials than they did.

Ireland face South Africa on Saturday, knowing this is the biggest game they have played in this current four-year cycle. They’ll be confident in so many aspects of their game, knowing they are capable of breaking down any defence in the world.

But as Samoa proved before the tournament, the one soft underbelly Ireland have is their scrummaging, and next weekend Andy Farrell’s men will face the biggest scrummage challenge in Test rugby – that incredible Springbok pack.

READ MORE: Ireland throw down the gauntlet with statement demolition of Tonga