Ireland 59; Tonga 16
The rugby world is licking its lips as the globe’s No 1-ranked rugby team Ireland prepare to take on reigning World Champions South Africa in Paris on Saturday night.
Before that though, Andy Farrell had to make sure the first two matches went according to plan - and in retrospect with 12 tries against Romania in the opener and then eight tries against a physical Tonga outfit in Nantes on Saturday night - he could hardly have asked for much more.
Twenty tries, no frontline injuries and a confidence that they can meet and beat any team in the world means unusually Ireland will face up to the Springboks believing they are the best and can win this clash of Titans.
Already leading the group with 10 points thanks to the collection of winning bonus points from the opening brace of encounters, there is no doubt that things could possibly still go wrong for the men in green who traditionally have underwhelmed when arriving at any and all World Cup in the past 36 years.
Rather than worry about what might be, Head Coach Farrell, his backroom team and his squad of highly positive players are pushing and pushing to see what the outer limits of this Ireland squad actually is.
They take on the Springboks a point ahead but knowing that if they win, they will almost certainly play the lesser of France and New Zealand (currently looking like the All Blacks) in the quarter-finals.
On the counter to that, a defeat means there will be a war of attrition against Scotland the following weekend knowing that the loser will go home and the winner will accompany South Africans into the knockout stages.
Risks such as playing Johnny Sexton as a starter No 10 in the opening games against Romania and Tonga worked out with the Leinster talisman not just playing out of his skin but doing so well in the first half at the weekend that he was rested for the full second moiety by Farrell.
By then the 38-year-old had annexed a personal record as his try and penalty and four conversions had seen him surpass Ronal O’Gara’s long-standing record.
With Finlay Bealham’s head injury the only worry which necessitated Tadhg Furlong getting his kit off for a second time, Farrell will hope that he becomes what Napoleon - a lucky general.
On paper the decision to go with largely his strongest team in both opening matches was fraught with danger but as events transpired, the decision proved to be the right one.
The fact that all eight subs had at least 25 minutes of front-line action for a second week means there is no “them” and “us” in the 33-man squad as meaningful appearances stack up better in terms of communal spirit that just using the second string for the easier matches and the frontliners for the big games.
It must be remembered that Tonga are a helluva physical unit and were fronting up for power combat with the Irish early on. This is where Farrell’s “playing process” came in as his team took down the opposition with strong challenges before showing their class with four first half tries which had us leading 31-13 at the interval.
Those tries by Tadhg Beirne, Caelan Doris, Mack Hansen and Sexton knocked the stuffing out of the South Sea Islanders but when referee Wayne Barnes yellow-carded Peter O’Mahony deep in first-half injury time, that fact and the replacement of the entire front row and of course Sexton saw our opposition score 10 points without reply as they took off on the front foot.
Yes, there was a few minutes when the thought occurred that another try against us would throw the cat among the pigeons big time, but once we got our 15 men back on the pitch, we re-asserted out dominance and a further four tries by James Lowe, Rob Herring and the man of the match Bundee Aki with a brace turned the game into a procession long before the end.
After a less than impressive build-up through the warm up games, the management team’s decision to play most of their top players has allowed them to iron out certain problems such as lineout throws and breakdown indifference.
Those cobwebs were there in the opening quarter and mindful that we will have to be on fire from the first moment until last this weekend, it was a perfect dress rehearsal before the Stade de France clash.
Ireland’s clever use of maul from the lineout saw Doris burst over for the opening try and without giving away too many moves in one game, they were showing slickness to wrong-foot their opponents once they got the ball in hand.
Arguably the best score of the entire World Cup and not just this match came when Mac Hansen took advantage of a three-quarter move across the whole pitch to side step three opponents with an outside jink before accelerating like a hot knife through butter to the line on a fascinating inward trajectory that left about half a dozen opponents flailing at shadows in his slipstream.
In terms of historic moments, what followed had more long-term significance as Sexton touched down to break the scoring record - fittingly it was a try rather than the boot when the score arrived on this occasion. It meant he has totted up 1,090 points in the Ireland colors during his stellar career.
When Bealham failed to reappear following the protocol surrounding head injuries, Furlong came back to steady the scrum while both Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson saw action from then to the end instead of Garry Ringrose and James Ryan.
Just as Andrew Porter’s first half try was disallowed by the TMO so too Herring’s second movement on the deck was detected by the eye in the sky when the replacement hooker thought he had tapped and gone over from a short penalty two weeks in a row.
Craig Casey’s presence instead of Conor Murray helped to raise the tempo of the game from there to the final whistle while it was good to see Ryan Baird get meaningful time to show what he is capable of on this platform.
Ireland (Ratings out of 10) : H Keenan 7; M Hansen 8, G Ringrose 6, B Aki 9, J Lowe 6; J Sexton (capt) 9, C Murray 8; A Porter 7, R Kelleher 7, T Furlong 8; T Beirne 8, J Ryan 7; P O'Mahony 6, J van der Flier 7, C Doris 7 Replacements: R Herring 7, D Kilcoyne 7, F Bealham n/a , I Henderson 8, R Baird 7, C Casey 7, R Byrne 7, R Henshaw 6.
Ireland facing the ultimate test against holders - Sexton
Captain Johnny Sexton brushed aside talk of his own personal milestones as Ireland record points scorer to insist that this weekend’s game against the World Cup holders South Africa is all he is thinking about this week.
The 38-year-old has defied the march of time and recent suspension to bounce back in such form that he can’t wait to face the Springboks in Pool B on Saturday night in Paris.
Accepting that they provided the ultimate test for him and his side, he said: “The proof of whether I'm in good form will be next Saturday. You've got to go and do it in the games.
“They've hit a great vein of form and it's going to be a huge challenge for us but one that we are really excited about and we feel we're ready for it,” he stressed.
Sexton added to his 24-point tally against Romania with another 15 in Nantes, including his side’s third try to put him in top form as they count down the hours to the country’s biggest ever World Cup challenge.
Mindful that Ireland has a poor record in this competition since its inception in 1987, this group under Head Coach Andy Farrell and skipper Sexton want to make up for past disappointments by going further than any Irish team has gone before.
Farrell too was happy with how the opening stanzas have been written in France and looked forward with anticipation to the battle of the heavyweights. "Two games under the belt is good for us. Hopefully that rolls on to another level on the third week. This is what World Cups are all about, weeks that are coming against the reigning world champions.
"It doesn't get any better and one thing's for sure, you know that the Irish are going to turn up and enjoy it as well. It's a fantastic week to look forward to. We had a tricky period either side of half-time where we got on the wrong side of the penalty count. When that happens it can hurt you.
"We conceded a try off the back of it, penalty after penalty and a yellow card, something we haven’t done in a while. It gives us something to work on now during the week. Otherwise, it was really good. They are a good side, and probably would have benefitted from a game last week.
“They were a bit of an unknown quantity for us. We were worried about the emotion of the whole thing, it being their first World Cup game, so to get the winning margin we did and score 59 points, we are really happy," he stated.