Monday 22 July 2019

'We must match it with All Blacks before the World Cup' - Johnny Sexton urges Ireland to lay down a marker


Ireland and Leinster rugby star Johnny Sexton has teamed up with MACE, the country’s longestserving convenience brand. Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Ireland and Leinster rugby star Johnny Sexton has teamed up with MACE, the country’s longestserving convenience brand. Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It wasn't something Johnny Sexton had experienced before, yet here he was vomiting profusely at half-time of a game.

New Zealand had just scored a converted try on the stroke of the break to open up a 19-13 lead and after the restart they ran out of sight.

The pace was relentless and while Ireland were able to live with the All Blacks for almost 40 minutes, an inevitable defeat soon followed.

That fear factor no longer exists these days, however, thanks to the historic win in Chicago two years ago and as the world champions get set to arrive in Dublin again, Ireland are eager to lay down another marker.

That the clash on November 17 represents the last time that Ireland will play a team from the southern hemisphere before the World Cup merely adds to the intrigue.

Then when you throw in the fact that Joe Schmidt's side could end up playing the All Blacks in a potential quarter-final in Japan, you begin to understand just why this mouthwatering contest matters greatly.

"Yeah of course, it is our last chance to play against them before the World Cup and if things go well in the pool, we could have a game against South Africa," Sexton said.

"But that go either way and we could end up playing them in the quarter-finals. So it's important that we're able to match it with them.

"Before you play them you know it's going to be the toughest game of the season, always.

"I remember one of my first games (in 2010), I vomited at half-time. It was just an incredible pace to the game, just every collision was ferocious. Every collision was like the first collision of the game.

"It was an eye-opener, one that you kind of think, 'Wow, these guys are...' But I think our levels of fitness now, and our levels of preparation have gone up a lot since then.

"So it's a great challenge and a lot of us now have beaten them a couple of times and we want to do it again.

"We've never beaten them in Ireland, so it would be pretty special to be on the first Irish team to beat them here and I'm sure the crowd, everyone is looking for tickets and (excited by) the thought of it.

"So as players we need to concentrate on the first couple of games but at the same time it's going to be a pretty special occasion."

As is always the case, the southern hemisphere teams come into November on the back of a long, gruelling season, yet Ireland didn't use that as an excuse when they sealed a first series victory in Australia since 1979.

"You never play other international teams at the same time of the season as yourselves, so look of course they're going to be tired after a long season," Sexton maintained.

"We were tired going to Australia and we managed to pull ourselves together and put in performances that did enough to win a Test series.

"The All Blacks always talk about their levels and they're always trying to reach those levels, no matter what time of the year.

"Look, they're the one team that you expect to come and show their best.

"They've got a really good player welfare system as well, so most of them will only have played the same amount of games that we played at the end of last season, around that early 20s mark. They'll be fresher than other teams and be ready to go.

"There are years gone by that we've gone on tours and been on holidays pretty much before the games, and it hasn't ended well. The one in Hamilton especially stands out for me, where we just had a bad week's prep, and that wouldn't happen now."

The prospect of Sexton (33) coming up against Beauden Barrett (27) again will have supporters from around the world purring with excitement.

Widely regarded as the two best out-halves in the world, Sexton defended the criticism aimed at his Kiwi counterpart's goal-kicking.

The All Blacks are not known for swapping their jerseys, because in their minds, it takes them too much to earn it - the classic All Black aura.

Sexton has played against New Zealand 11 times, yet the only time he ever got one of their jerseys was Barrett's in Chicago - not that he has ever been overly fussed either way.

"There were a few things where they refused to swap jerseys for different reasons, so I never really wanted to put myself in that situation where you walk in and say something stupid after, if that happened.

"I'm not sure, they probably have people they need to give it to, there's probably different reasons they want to keep it, or whatever.

"That was the only one I have, and look, he's a nice guy, World Player of the Year the last two years in a row, he's the guy to catch."

For now, it's all about getting over Leinster's defeat to Toulouse.

Sexton defended his decision to kick the ball in the dying stages as he pointed to adopting the same approach in the build-up to his last-gasp drop goal in Paris last February.

"There is a lot of thought that goes into the decisions," Sexton added.

"If I kicked that ball against France and Keith Earls didn't have that great take, people would say, 'Why is he kicking it?' There are reasons why we kicked it.

"Retain possession and worse-case scenario get into their half and try and squeeze a penalty of them and a chance to try and win the game.

"So it wasn't to be, but there were so many mistakes before that, it was like we got the three tries and expected the fourth to just arrive."

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