Johnny Sexton: being clinical is key if Ireland are to beat All Blacks

Outhalf insists side are ‘exactly where they want to be’ ahead of huge quarter-final

Johnny Sexton muscles over to score one of his two tries against Samoa. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty

The Irish squad watched the thrill-a-minute conclusion to the pool stages in Yokohama between Japan and Scotland at their Fukuoka hotel in the knowledge that their likelier quarter-final destiny was a quarter-final against New Zealand.

"We thought beforehand that it would be a big ask for us not to play New Zealand, so we were kind of half prepared for it," said Johnny Sexton on Monday morning before the squad moved on to Tokyo. "It was fairly normal really. The final whistle went and we said 'as expected' and off we went to bed."

While Ireland have now advanced from the group stages at eight of the nine World Cups, they've never won a knockout match, losing six quarter-finals and a quarter-final play-off in 1991 as well as the sole pool exit in 2007.

Ireland’s list of conquerors have been Australia in the first two World Cups, France, Argentina, France again, Wales and Argentina four years ago. At face value therefore, the back-to-back champions look the toughest knockout assignment of all.


Sexton appreciates the scale of the task facing Ireland but says they can take some confidence from the last four meetings under Joe Schmidt’s watch, scoring 87 points and conceding 83 in the process. Indeed, in the last World Cup cycle Ireland have won two of three meetings, albeit two have been in Dublin and one in Chicago.

The key to beating the All Blacks, in Sexton’s view, is: “Being clinical - when you do get a chance you have to take it. That sounds easy but it’s a lot harder to do against such a quality team. But if you can do that then you give yourself a chance.

Johnny Sexton takes a conversion during Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in November 2018. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

“Your defence has to be the best it can be, we’ll need to be at our best in that regard and with our discipline too. So that’s pretty much the whole game, so we’ll need to be pretty close to as good as we can be in all aspects to be able to get the result.”

As for the weight of Ireland’s history at World Cups, Sexton said: “I’m hoping that having lost a pool game that we’ve got that quarter-final performance out of our system that we’ve had in other tournaments.

“The way we played against Japan was probably very similar to the way we played against Wales and Argentina in the last two tournaments.

“The difference now is we’re not favourites going into this quarter-final whereas we were in the last two. So we’re building nicely, we haven’t hit our best performance yet and we need to get close to that to get the right result on Saturday.”

Apart from what he admitted was a poor final hour against Japan, Sexton maintained that, “everything else has pretty much gone to plan. There’s been some negativity around us and we’d feel that’s been pretty strange.”

“But we’re really confident in how we’re building. We’d like to be playing a bit better in some regards at times, but hopefully we can put that performance out there on Saturday.”

Sexton said the “negativity” had not been a talking point within the squad.

“It’s just something that we get a sense of. You get texts saying, ‘Keep the head up, we’re still behind you’ and you get a feeling that there are some things out there that aren’t great. Shockers (media officer Dave O’Siochain) gives us the lowdown before we come in here what to expect.

“We know things weren’t great but it’s funny some people trying to compare things to ‘07 when they just scraped past Namibia and we have just beaten Russia 35-0. How there can be comparisons there, I’m not quite sure, and in totally different conditions.

“Look, we are where we are, we’re exectly where we want to be in terms of a quarter-final and now we’re going to do everything we can for this week to put our best selves out there and hopefully that can get us the right result. We know we can play to our potential and still not get it, so we’ve got to make sure we do our part and really go for it.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times