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'If this is the peak, it is no good for anybody' - Johnny Sexton urges Ireland to kick on after New Zealand triumph


Ireland's Johnny Sexton with New Zealand's Ardie Savea and a young child after the match

Ireland's Johnny Sexton with New Zealand's Ardie Savea and a young child after the match

Ireland's Johnny Sexton with New Zealand's Ardie Savea and a young child after the match

When the ears finally stopped ringing, the 3/1 betting slips were cashed and the 50-odd-thousand fans had left the arena - belatedly, after a roar that propelled the victorious Ireland players around the pitch on a lap of honour - coach and captain sat side by side and tried to put an unexpected All Blacks ass-kicking into context.

A nine-point win over New Zealand is two points short of the inaugural transatlantic triumph of 2016, but there is no hiding the fact that Ireland could have won by double that margin had they taken a glut of close-range first-half openings that were manufactured off the back of relentlessly intense carrying and suffocating defence.

Every big decision - from moving Andrew Porter to loosehead prop, to assembling a back row that contains both Caelan Doris and Jack Conan to backing James Lowe and Andrew Conway amid a host of alternatives - were utterly vindicated on a day that has further fractured the peloton jockeying for position atop the sport.

We have been here before - circa 2018 - where a victory over the men in black seemed to open up endless possibilities for the Irish team.

On that occasion, it proved to be the high point right before the most successful era Irish rugby has ever known unravelled at startling pace.

How can things be different this time around? How can the players and coaches ensure that the euphoria of this emphatic win is matched again in New Zealand in next summer's three-test series, and then again in France at the World Cup in 2023?

These are questions that Johnny Sexton and Andy Farrell are determine to have answers to this time around.

"If this is the peak, it is no good for anybody," Sexton said.

"This is the start of a two-year journey and it's important that we continue to improve. There is definitely room for improvement individually and you can see some of the stuff in the first half in terms of taking our chances.

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Ireland's head coach Andy Farrell before the Autumn International match at Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Ireland's head coach Andy Farrell before the Autumn International match at Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Ireland's head coach Andy Farrell before the Autumn International match at Aviva Stadium, Dublin

"We could have scored a few tries in the first half. We need to keep our feet on the ground and keep improving.

"This is just the start and we need to keep building. The thing about beating New Zealand - it gives a lift to the country but you don't get a trophy."

That last sentence holds the key. These three victories over New Zealand have created indelible memories for players, coaches and supporters but ultimately, beside souvenir DVDs, nothing tangible was on offer.

That's not to say that the intangible confidence boost of throttling the world's number one team can't drive this group onto a higher plain as they look to finally make their mark at a World Cup in a meaningful way.

"We have won seven on the bounce now and there is a belief that if we play our best, we can get good results," Sexton added. "That belief is there now."

For Andy Farrell, he can say that he has scaled rugby's most tortuous mountain five times, having helped slay the All Blacks on four occasions as an assistant coach before today's outright triumph as the head man.

It has been a remarkable turnaround for a project that midway through the Six Nations last spring, was crying out for a spark.

In summing up his fifth win over New Zealand, Farrell opted for language reminiscent of his rugby-league playing style - unequivocal.

"We did what we said we would do. We trusted ourselves to play how we wanted to play - that's it in a nutshell," he said.

Given the impressive 21-point second-half performance, you could almost - almost - forget that the game was in danger of slipping away at the break after all those butchered chances.

A term thrown around after the 2019 World Cup failure was that Ireland suffered from 'performance anxiety' on the big stage.

Sexton was adamant that the third-quarter blitz that yielded tries for Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris stemmed directly from the work the squad has done to address any mental deficiency.

"We weren't clinical in the first half but fair play, this team has worked a hell of a lot on the mental side of the game and to come again, that is a testament to the management and the players," Sexton said.

"Previously, we would have said, 'we didn't take our chances' and put the heads down a bit, but we got our rewards today."

If Andy Farrell was keeping his emotions under wraps, New Zealand head coach Ian Foster was more effusive in his breakdown of his side's demise.

Foster, like Farrell, has been involved in the previous Ireland wins over the All Blacks as an assistant, and in his front row seat he rates today's performance as the best he has seen from the men in green.

"They thoroughly deserved their win. I was really impressed by them," he said.

"Ireland play a very high retention game. They like to retain the ball and put the system under pressure and we saw that again tonight but there is certainly an ambition to play a bit more ambition around that so it is a little bit wider in how they’re playing, some of the phase stuff and how they counter-attack.

"Don’t get me wrong, I think that was a very good performance and probably the best performance I have come up against in my time.”

There were other post-match tidbits, like Sexton responding to New Zealand hooker Dane Coles' contention that the Ireland skipper is a 'mouthy c****’. "He has plenty to say all the time, and I don't mind that,” was the response.

The Ireland out-half also paid tribute to his understudy, Joey Carbery, for nailing some clutch kicks off the bench to seal the game.

But the final word came from Farrell, as he reflected on the most successful day of his head-coaching career and one, he hopes, that will be the start of something special rather than simply a career highlight.

"The test for us over the last couple of years has been consistency of performance,” he said.

"I said last week, to beat them, you need to be at your best and you need a bit of luck as well - but I don't think we needed the luck because we were at our best today."

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