Tuesday 19 February 2019

Johnny Sexton: We don't want to be seen as a flash in the pan

Johnny Sexton in reflective mood at Carton House. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton in reflective mood at Carton House. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Back in the days when New Zealand simply viewed Ireland as road-kill waiting to happen, no one in this country really pondered what life would be like if they truly took the national team seriously.

The answer to the question nobody asked came in November 2016, two weeks after Joe Schmidt's side got the monkey off their backs and ended a more than a century-long wait for a win over the men in black.

New Zealand were feral when they came to Dublin that day; playing with an intensity above any away team to visit the city before or since.

Two years on and the memory of the high hits lingers, but there was so much more to their performance than the brutality of their collisions.

Steve Hansen said on Sunday that the win in Chicago had come down to the Irish tight-five superiority and, with their world-leading second-rows Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock back in the team, the world champions set out to lay down a marker.

As Schmidt recalled, the first two minutes was as impressive a show of strength as you could see, as they set up Malakai Fekitoa's try.

"They scored a phenomenal try very, very quickly at the start of the game the last time we played them that was pure All Blacks class," the Ireland coach explained.

"The speed of the ruck, the speed of transfer, the quality of the passing and the running lines... all of those things that we know that are coming, they presented.

"There's no doubt they'll want to hit the ground running in a similar fashion. We'll have to be ready."

Now, as then, Ireland have New Zealand's full attention.

Presumably they won't get away with the head-high brutality that so sullied that win in Irish eyes, but their tough-guy approach can take many forms.

Johnny Sexton was on the field for the first quarter of that game before his hamstring gave out, but he felt the early force.

"Yeah, it was physical for those 19 minutes," he reflected.

"Look, it is always a very physical game. I think that one went over the edge didn't it?

"I think that game changed a lot going forward, that was a massive moment where high tackles suddenly... (the laws around) what's acceptable and what's not acceptable... after that, I felt thing changed.

"You probably wouldn't get away with that now. In some ways it was a sign of respect. They were probably hurting from a few weeks previously, but look, ultimately you only get the respect if you beat them.

"They say that themselves and you feel it when you beat them, you get some respect.

"Being a part of a few teams that have done it now, I think this side is capable of it but we need to get everything right at the weekend, and we need to be close to our best."

Beating the All Blacks is, Hansen says, a good news story for the victor and he and his team are used to being the top dogs ready to be shot down.

They almost came into this week on the back of a defeat, but they rescued a serious situation at Twickenham and are buoyed by a 16-15 win.

Still, Ireland, the Lions, South Africa and Australia have beaten them in this World Cup cycle during a period of regeneration.

"It's the ability to bounce back which makes you a good rugby side. We saw a bit of that character, going down 15-0 and then coming back," Hansen said.

"There's plenty of character in the All Black jersey. I'd say there's plenty in the Irish jersey too at the moment."

Sexton has faced them 11 times, tasting victory twice, drawing once and losing the other nine - one of which was the 60-0 horror-show in Hamilton in 2012.

Relishes

He still relishes facing the haka and is viewing it through a different prism now that his son Luca is old enough to appreciate the pre-match Maori war dance.

The competitor in him wants to win but Sexton says the mystique and aura of the black jersey remains despite repeated battles.

"From my point of view the haka is one of the great traditions in rugby," he said. "When I was on the Lions, Luca used to get up and watch the games and all he was interested in was the haka.

"That's from kids all over the world, it's something they get to enjoy. He's already talking about it this week.

"They've always been the pinnacle really of international rugby.

"They're always the team to beat, always the best team in the world; since I've been playing they've always been No 1 - for the last nine years anyway.

"They've won the last two World Cups, so maybe if you ask guys from different generations they might have thought differently.

"But for me it's always been about trying to catch them, and I've been lucky enough to play in a couple of teams that have done that and now we want to stay up there with them.

"We want to not be a flash-in-the-pan team and challenge them once or twice, but that every time we play against them it's a really tough game."

Although his team will remain at the top of the rankings regardless of Saturday's result, Hansen has stated that the winner of Saturday's game will hold the mantle of the world's best team.

Sexton's not buying that. "Any team can beat them in a one-off, England almost did it last week but would that have made England the best team in the world? No, because New Zealand are ranked No 1," he stated matter-of-factly.

"We'll still treat it like the massive game that it is, every chance you get to play against New Zealand, especially at home in front of your family and friends, it's a very special thing and the amount of people texting, looking for tickets, suggests that.

"So it's one to really cherish and look forward to and for a few lads it could be the last time they play against New Zealand as well, so you want to send them off with that sort of memory."

Only one team have managed it in the long history of the game here and, in doing so, they poked the bear.

They still have that bear's attention going into Saturday's game and that's what will make those memories worth cherishing.

Independentie has two pairs of tickets to the sold out Ireland vs New Zealand game at the Aviva this Saturday. Enter here

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