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Tonga's Fekitoa looking forward to 'our toughest game' against Ireland and seeing old friends

PARIS (AP) — Five teams — even new guys Chile — will have played twice at the Rugby World Cup by the time Tonga makes its bow on Saturday.

Malakai Fekitoa doesn't mind.

The New Zealand World Cup winner who jumped on the eligibility law changes to play for Tonga, his country of birth, said on Monday their late start has enlightened them on how teams have handled the opening weekend.

"(Waiting has been) good for us as we can see what's going on and have a feel how the competition is going before we get into our work,” he said.

And his impression? “Mixed performances, maybe nerves. A lot of teams did not want to lose so we've not seen them taking risks. The next round will be different.”

One of the teams that has already got its jerseys dirty is Tonga's first opponent — Ireland. The No. 1-ranked test side posted a 14th consecutive win last Saturday when it hung Romania out to dry by 82-8.

“We are playing against the best team in the world right now,” Fekitoa said. “It will be our toughest game. We will have to match them physically.”

Another reason he's looking forward to the match on Saturday night in Nantes is to catch up with old mates. Fekitoa played for Munster last season, helping them win the United Rugby Championship against the Stormers in Cape Town and reach the European Cup last 16.

Seven of the Irish squad are from Munster, including his fellow inside backs Jack Crowley and Conor Murray.

“It will be pretty weird to play against them, especially the Munster boys,” he said. “I had a really good connection with those boys, they looked after me when I was there. We won the championship (URC), and those memories will last a lifetime.”

Fekitoa comes into the tournament riding the high of the recent birth of a second daughter by Spanish fiancee Claudia Velazco. He was part of the All Blacks' 2015 World Cup-winning side and has been touring Europe since 2017. He's played at Toulon, Wasps, and Munster, and is taking his family next to Treviso.

Tonga has assembled what it considers its best squad ever for a World Cup, including former All Blacks Vaea Fifita, George Moala, Charles Piutau and Augustine Pulu beside Fekitoa and former Australia lock Adam Coleman, who could make his debut this Saturday. But the 'Ikale Tahi are in the toughest pool of the tournament. After Ireland, they face Scotland, South Africa and Romania in Pool B.

“A lot has been made about our team on paper, we've got a few more familiar names in there,” assistant coach Dan Cron said. "But that doesn’t count much until the performance.”

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AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby