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Rugby World Cup 2023: Johnny Sexton starts again as Ireland make four changes for Tonga match

Ireland play Tonga in Nantes on Saturday, before taking on South Africa on September 23 and Scotland on October 7; Andy Farrell's side began their campaign with a record 82-8 win over Romania last weekend

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Ireland train ahead of their second Rugby World Cup Group B match against Tonga having beaten Romania in their opening game

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton retained his starting place for Saturday's Rugby World Cup clash with Tonga as head coach Andy Farrell made four changes to his side.

Winger Mack Hansen and scrum-half Conor Murray come into the backline in place of Keith Earls and Jamison Gibson-Park following last weekend's 82-8 thrashing of Pool B minnows Romania.

There are also two changes among the forwards with Ronan Kelleher replacing Rob Herring at hooker and openside flanker Josh van der Flier coming into the side for Joe McCarthy in a reshuffle of the pack.

Sexton will captain a strong team at Stade de La Beaujoire, just seven days before Andy Farrell's men take on defending champions South Africa.

Connacht wing Hansen made a 20-minute cameo during the victorious curtain-raiser in Bordeaux, having initially been left out of head coach Farrell's opening matchday 23, despite being fit.

Bordeaux , France - 9 September 2023; Mack Hansen of Ireland after his side's victory in the 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between Ireland and Romania at Stade de Bordeaux in Bordeaux, France. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Image: Winger Mack Hansen comes into the Ireland starting XV

The 25-year-old's late elevation to a spot among the replacements followed Robbie Henshaw pulling out ahead of kick-off due to a minor hamstring issue.

Centre Henshaw has seemingly recovered in time for this weekend after being named on a bench which also includes prop Dave Kilcoyne, who has been sidelined with a hamstring issue, and tournament debutants Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey and Ross Byrne.

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Hooker Dan Sheehan has returned to training following the foot issue he sustained in last month's warm-up win over England but remains an absentee.

Herring will provide backup for Kelleher, while scrum-half Gibson-Park and lock McCarthy, who joined the South Africa-born hooker on the scoresheet against Romania, also drop out, in addition to wing Earls.

The world's top-ranked nation are seeking to extend their record winning streak to 15 matches to keep themselves on course for the quarter-finals moving towards pivotal Paris appointments with the Springboks and Scotland.

Kelleher will pack down between first-choice props Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong to make only his second Test start since the 2022 Guinness Six Nations.

The 25-year-old's opportunities have been restricted by a series of injury setbacks and the emergence of Leinster team-mate Sheehan.

Tadhg Beirne moves into the second row to partner James Ryan following his two-try turn at blindside flanker against Romania.

World player of the year Van der Flier comes in at openside flanker, pushing Peter O'Mahony into the number six shirt vacated by Beirne, while Caelan Doris continues at number eight.

Johnny Sexton
Image: Johnny Sexton returned to Ireland's starting line-up against Romania last week

Murray, who slipped behind Gibson-Park in the pecking order during 2021, resumes his long-term partnership with fellow veteran Sexton.

Fly-half Sexton last week came back from almost six months out through injury and suspension to become his country's leading World Cup points scorer (102) by registering two tries as part of a 24-point haul.

With the South Africa showdown looming, Farrell has resisted temptation to rest the influential 38-year-old, who needs just nine more points to equal Ronan O'Gara's national record of 1,083.

Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose are retained in midfield, with Hansen in a familiar back three alongside fellow wing James Lowe and full-back Hugo Keenan. Ulster skipper Iain Henderson completes the bench.

Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Conor Murray; 1 Andrew Porter, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Caelan Doris.

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.

Sexton: O'Gara's Ireland record never entered my head

Sexton believes none of his team-mates will care if he surpasses Ronan O'Gara as Ireland's record points holder during Saturday's clash with Tonga.

Captain Sexton is on the cusp of making history for the second successive weekend after becoming his country's oldest international and leading World Cup points scorer in last weekend's 82-8 thrashing of Romania.

"It's not something that comes into my head too often," said Sexton, who is nine points behind O'Gara's tally of 1,083.

"Obviously I was unaware how close I was after the game last week until I came into the press conference and so now I'm getting reminded again.

Image: Sexton will retire after the Rugby World Cup

"Look, it will be a very special moment individually but no one else will really care. I won't be making decisions off the back of it.

"I want to win the game, I want to progress further in the competition and that is the only thing going through my head at the moment."

Veteran fly-half Sexton, who will retire following the tournament, had no interest in potentially being protected with the reigning world champions in mind.

"I don't have any say in selection," he said.

"I just rock up to training and do my best. Obviously, I want to play, I mean when you only have a certain amount of games left of course you want to play.

"But it's what is right for the team, what is right for different individuals and that was probably all taken into consideration. But no, I didn't have to do much talking (with Farrell)."

Farrell looking to 'build momentum' against Tonga

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Ireland head coach And Farrell and captain Johnny Sexton expect a tough test when they face Tonga in their second match of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell says he hoped his selection will help "build momentum" for the world No 1 side.

"There's always temptation [to change things around], but at the end of the day, it's what's right for the team and finding form," said Farrell.

"That team that played last week hadn't played together before, and we get to roll onto this one.

"You're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't but the only thing I care about is winning this weekend because the points on other is exactly the same as what is coming down the line.

"We'd like to go with what we've got - a good side, a fit side and build up momentum throughout the competition."

Tonga name four former All Blacks in strong selection

Tonga coach Toutai Kefu has named former All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau, Vaea Fifita and Augustine Pulu in his team to play top ranked Ireland in the World Cup Pool B clash on Saturday.

Pulu comes in at scrumhalf for regular skipper Sonatane Takulua with prop Ben Tameifuna taking the captain's armband for the Pacific islanders' opening match of the tournament at Nantes' Stade de la Beaujoire.

Fekitoa, a World Cup winner in 2015, lines up at outside centre with Piutau at fullback and number eight Fifita in the pack alongside his lock brother Leva.

A change to World Rugby's eligibility laws in 2021 allowed players to change allegiance to a country with which they had links through their heritage.

Centre George Moala, another former All Black, will miss Tonga's first three pool matches as part of his ban for a tip tackle during a match against Canada in early August.

Tonga: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Afusipa Taumoepeau, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Solomone Kata, 10 Otumaka Mausia, 9 Augustine Pulu; 1 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 2 Paula Ngauamo, 3 Ben Tameifuna (c), 4 Sam Lousi, 5 Leva Fifita, 6 Tanginoa Halaifonua, 7 Sione Talitui, 8 Vaea Fifita.

Replacements: 16 Sam Moli, 17 Tau Kolomatangi, 18 Sosefo Apikotoa, 19 Steve Mafi, 20 Solomone Funaki, 21 Sione Vailanu, 22 Sonatane Takul, 23 Fine Inisi

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