Johnny Sexton broke Ireland’s individual points record as his side moved closer to the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup with a stunning 59-16 bonus point victory over Tonga in Nantes.
The influential fly-half surpassed Ronan O’Gara’s previous tally of 1,083 in style with the fourth of his side’s eight tries on a balmy evening at the Stade de la Beaujoire.
Captain Sexton also took a penalty and converted four times, en route to a career total of 1,090, before being withdrawn from a tough Pool B game at half-time ahead of the crucial game against South Africa in week two.
Tries from Tadhg Beirne, Caelan Doris and Mack Hansen paved the way to victory, with Bundee Aki’s brace and James Lowe and Rob Herring capping Sexton’s defining moment in the second half.
Vaea Fifita crossed just before half-time to give Tonga hope after Peter O’Mahony’s yellow card, while William Havili added three penalties and a converted goal.
But the world’s top-ranked nation easily maintained its 100 per cent start to the tournament and, alongside the Springboks and Scotland, headed towards the crucial dates in Paris relatively unscathed.
Despite the looming threat from the reigning world champions, head coach Andy Farrell named an extremely strong starting XI with just four personnel changes from last weekend’s impressive 12-try triumph over Romania.
His team, unfamiliar with white jerseys, were once again strongly supported in the stands and met Tonga’s Sipi Tau with a collective step forward.
Sexton converted an early penalty to turn up the volume, but Havili parried from long range to equalize, before Ireland were left frustrated when an Andrew Porter effort was disallowed due to a Hansen kick-in.
The disappointment was short-lived as Farrell’s men stayed in front, culminating in Beirne collecting Doris’ pass and putting it under the posts, his third time doing so in the tournament.
Havili scored another daring penalty just before half-time to reduce Tonga’s deficit, but their hopes of a first victory over the Six Nations champions were quickly dashed by costly indiscipline.
Lowe was hit in his own 22 by opposing winger Solomone Kata, giving Ireland a penalty at the other end of the field from which Doris overwhelmed.
Hansen – one of four men recalled by Farrell – then danced superbly through the opposition defense, wide on the right, to extend the scoreboard, resulting in Sexton equaling O’Gara’s previous national record.
Sexton memorably overtook his former fly-half rival to secure the bonus point.
The evergreen 38-year-old turned back the years by effortlessly slipping through Tonga’s defense to touch down and then he celebrated with the fans sitting behind the posts before regaining his composure and adding a simple conversion.
Ireland threatened to attack the stunned outsiders.
But Tonga hit back and during a series of penalties near the Irish line O’Mahony was condemned before former All Black Fifita overcame an early injury to take over.
Ireland changed their entire front row at half-time and wrapped Sexton in cotton wool.
But substitute tighthead prop Finlay Bealham went off to have his head injury assessed after Havili took his third penalty of the night, requiring the quick return of Tahdg Furlong before substitute Hurler Herring had a try disallowed on review.
Lowe eventually caught Ireland’s fifth and official man in the game, Aki, and then shot himself to the top of the tournament’s embryonic try-scoring charts with a quick brace, both converted by Sexton substitute Ross Byrne.
Ireland were relatively composed in the second half and Herring secured another emphatic victory – their 15th in a row – ahead of two crucial games in the French capital.