Ireland need to mix and match their team for Tonga test while keeping their big guns fresh to face South Africa… but axis of Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Beirne will be crucial

As Bundee Aki sprinted to win the race for Jack Crowley’s chip ahead, the clock read 82 minutes and 17 seconds.

Aki gathered marvellously, then off-loaded expertly to the supporting Garry Ringrose.

The outside centre drew the sole defender and threw a straightforward pass for Tadhg Beirne to slide over and score Ireland’s twelfth try.

That willingness to keep the ball alive and try to chase one more score left Andy Farrell looking very pleased after the match, but the identity of the trio involved was crucial, too.

Aki, Ringrose and Beirne all played the full game in extremely testing conditions and, if this reflects well on Ireland’s physical preparation – like the excellent performance of 38 year old Johnny Sexton after a six-month absence did – it also gives a strong indication of the coach’s plans for the coming fortnight.

Tadhg Beirne slips through the Romanian lines during Ireland’s crushing 82-8 victory

Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose were involved in teeing up Beirne for Ireland's final score

Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose were involved in teeing up Beirne for Ireland’s final score

Ireland’s World Cup fortunes will be dictated by what happens between now and the night of September 23. The team Farrell picks to play Tonga next week will be heavily influenced by the South Africa game.

The Irish camp are already stressing that they expect a formidable challenge in Nantes against the Tongans, but anything other than Irish victory against a team whose only recent wins have come against Canada, would be a sensational result.

The physical challenge they pose has been well advertised, but the impacts made by limited but lumpen Romanian tacklers are still being nursed at the Irish base in Tours on Monday morning.

Expect Farrell to rotate significantly, and that such a key trio as Ringrose, Aki and Beirne were left to play the full 80 minutes suggests they will all start on the bench, at best, in five days’ time.

Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Peter O’Mahony and Joe McCarthy were the other four starters who played the full match. Two of those, Keenan and Lowe, are certainties to start in the Stade de France against South Africa; Keenan is so indispensable he could start every gam Ireland play here, whatever about finishing them all. 

McCarthy made a case for himself to be picked with his outing in Bordeaux that Farrell and Paul O’Connell may well find irresistible, while O’Mahony’s excellent display means he should be in the 23 for the South African showdown, too.

To see him keeping Josh van der Flier out of the starting 15 for a game of that importance seems a stretch, but if he doesn’t start, he’ll be among the replacements.

McCarthy is not a name that many would have associated with starting against the Springboks a month ago, but the job Aki did against Romania also constituted an audition that Farrell simply can’t ignore.

That decision could be made easier if Robbie Henshaw’s hamstring grumble persists. That is not expected to be the case; Farrell stressed it was a precaution to withdraw him from the bench after he felt tightness in the muscle on Friday.

Bundee Aki was alive to the possibility of one final Ireland try, even after 82 sapping minutes

Bundee Aki was alive to the possibility of one final Ireland try, even after 82 sapping minutes

But even if he is fit, Henshaw will not break up the Ringrose-Aki partnership. It’s one this coaching team has used before, and Aki offers two compelling strengths.

The first is his form; he was the outstanding Irish player on Saturday, even if O’Mahony was given the man-of-the-match award. He has long been associated with power, but the subtleties he has introduced into his play under Farrell and Mike Catt’s coaching make him an even more potent threat.

The second point in Aki’s favour is that long-established strength of his. Against South Africa, every ambition relies on withstanding a physical onslaught that can be devastating.

His durability and sheer strength are important assets in such a game.

No player responded better to Farrell’s call for Ireland to get serious about business on his arrival in Bordeaux.

It signalled a change in tempo after a pleasant warm-up week in Tours where they were adored by the locals.

They are back in that base now, where the focus of all involved will only get sharper.

Beirne was another who had a good showing against the Romanians, and that only served to remind all watching that he is most effective in the back row.

This, again, seems a move with South Africa in mind: playing Beirne at blindside flanker makes room for McCarthy in the second row, provides another line-out option, and also bulks up the Irish pack even further.

Garry Ringrose completes an axis that will be crucial to Ireland's chances against South Africa

Garry Ringrose completes an axis that will be crucial to Ireland’s chances against South Africa

Farrell joked with Sexton afterwards about playing him against Tonga so he can break Ronan O’Gara’s Irish scoring record. He is nine points shy of O’Gara’s mark but there will be no rush to have him pass it in Nantes on Saturday night.

Sexton will, though, surely feature off the bench, not for the purposes of statistics but because another 30 minutes or so to finesse his return from half a year out could be important.

Who starts in his stead is one of the interesting calls. Jack Crowley has a strong case to understudy Sexton in the big games, given his ambitious playing style, confidence and excellent run at Test level since making his debut.

The control that Ross Byrne provides is highly valued, with Mike Catt mentioning it again recently, and in a contest that will be more challenging than many presume, Byrne’s willingness to be pragmatic could be trusted.

There is also a factor that Farrell would deny, but trying to give as many members of the 33-man squad a game as possible is an ambition that, all else being equal, a coach would try and fulfil.

Beirne was one of four Ireland players to cross over on multiple occasions on Saturday

Beirne was one of four Ireland players to cross over on multiple occasions on Saturday

It keeps everyone involved and makes them feel a part of a building adventure.

The feeling that this odyssey will arrive at a critical juncture in Paris has only strengthened after the opening weekend.

Winning Pool B and avoiding the French in the quarter-finals is now the prize, but doing that will take a monumental effort against the defending champions.

The team picked for Romania showed that Ireland will aim to put out as big and physical a team as possible for that match.

Happily for Farrell, his picks in that regard all worked on Saturday, with Beirne and Aki particular successes.

Avoiding a chaotic misstep in Nantes is the requirement now, but there seems no chance of this group succumbing to complacency.

The business has started, and they look sharp.

The climb soon steepens and they look ready.

Nantes is next but the challenge of Paris awaits, already drawing our attention and causing hearts to beat that little bit faster.