Johnny Sexton the epitome of calm before the storm

‘Of course we know we can make history and we can create something a little bit special’

Ireland outhalf Johnny Sexton speaks to the media after training alone in an empty Tokyo Stadium ahead of Ireland's Rugby World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand. Video: Reuters

 

Spiky, bullish, funny but most of all calm. If Johnny Sexton can repeat the masterly performance of his solitary captain’s run press conference in Chofu, the All Blacks are in for an interesting experience.

When asked to rank the current Ireland team among the great sides he has played on, the 34-year-old pointed everyone towards the coming generation’s holy trinity.

“Yeah right up there,” said Sexton. “That’s where we get our little bit of belief and bit of confidence from, when you look around this circle. I’m not talking about the experienced lads, but you look around and see guys like Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan.

“These guys are just top quality people and players, and then you look and see all the experienced guys who have been around the block. Our biggest strength is our collective. We’d pretty much do anything for each other.”

When the record-breaking combination of Sexton and Conor Murray is brought up, the Ireland outhalf takes a clean swipe at the media.

“It’s been a pleasure to play alongside Conor. I hope we get many more caps together. At the end of the World Cup you guys will probably turn on us, and start calling for our heads, saying we’re too old and that the next batch have to come through. I can see it already.”

The 2018 World Player of the Year was the only member of Joe Schmidt’s squad to make the three-hour round trip from the team base beside Disneyland simply because he was never going to break a habit of a life time on the eve of the biggest game he will ever play.

“I like to get in a stadium to kick the day before the game. I wasn’t going to start something new so I just wanted to get my preparation done as usual. Had the bus to myself, pitch to myself, which was a bit strange. Chilled out on the way here and will chill out on the way back.”

A few hours away from the maddening crowd. And Mickey Mouse hats.

The sky is grey, the evening chilly, as winter suddenly envelopes this World Cup. Sexton was late to the press conference room, by about 40 minutes, which increasingly worried Irish journalists who remembered the disastrous captain’s run from four years ago in Cardiff (when Sexton’s injury was revealed).

When he finally arrived the health and safety warning that comes with revenge-seeking All Blacks was instantly dismissed.

Turning point

“As far as the game went [2016 in Dublin] I think that was almost the turning point in a lot of the law changes. High tackles. Some of the yellow cards that were given out, some of the things that were missed, would now be red. I don’t think they were intentional and I don’t think it will happen again.”

Ireland have featured in and lost six World Cup quarter-finals since 1987 but this is the very environment where he expects the team to perform at their best.

“We have been reared on knockout rugby. I came up through the schools system, which you know is cup rugby, knockout rugby, I played for St Marys, and in the All Ireland League, and then the Heineken Cup.

“We were reared on it,” he repeated. “We probably play a little bit more knockout rugby than New Zealand.”

Only victory, by Sexton’s hand and boot, can break Ireland’s glass ceiling at this global event. Otherwise, the World Cup exits will continue to feel like a curse, even if the defending champions deservedly prevail because, ultimately, defeat to Japan in Shizuoka will linger in the mind.

“You know, if we can walk off that pitch tomorrow having played our best, given everything, we will be able to look at ourselves no matter what. That’s all we can focus on. Of course we know we can make history and we can create something a little bit special.”

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