‘We were reared on knockout rugby’: Johnny Sexton eyes All Blacks clash
Outhalf bullish but calm ahead of his first start in a Rugby World Cup quarter-final
Spiky, bullish, funny and calm. If Johnny Sexton can repeat the masterly performance of this lone ranger Captain’s Run in Chofu - way out in deep west Tokyo - then the All Blacks are in for an interesting experience.
The World Player of the Year was the only member of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad to make the two hour round trip from the team base beside Disneyland simply because he was never going to break a habit of a life time - kicking practice - on the eve of the biggest game of his entire life.
Only victory, by Sexton’s hand and boot, will top this moment in time.
The world media was pitch side to watch him and kicking coach Richie Murphy amble onto the pitch to get a feel for how the wind blows around the Ajinomoto.
“Massive falling out in camp!” the 34 year old joked to reporters when walking out all alone. “Massive falling out in the team.”
The sky is grey, the evening is chilly as winter suddenly envelopes this World Cup. Sexton was late. By about 40 minutes. This worried the Irish journalists who can remember the disastrous Captain’s Run from exactly four years ago in Cardiff (when Sexton pulled up lame).
But, he arrived in, with a mix of rising grumpiness and dark humour to make you believe anything is possible.
Right out the gate the Dubliner is faced by the threat of angry Kiwis taking the levels of physicality up to and possibly over the lines of legality.
Q. Johnny, the [fortnight]after you beat New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 was a pretty brutal game, wasn’t it? The ‘black lash’ people talked about. Obviously you beat them last November so are you expecting something similar and if so how do you combat that?
“I am sure they will bring that physical edge that they always do. I am sure that is what they will be speaking about leading into the game.
“As far as that last 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 [Malakai Fekitoa got a yellow card for a forearm to neck contact with Simon Zebo and Sam Cane was cited but not suspended for shoulder to head contact that knocked Robbie Henshaw unconscious].
“I don’t think they were intentional at the time but if it happened now there would be bigger consequences. I don’t think it will happen again. I think they had a game where they went down to 14 against Australia [Scott Barrett red card] so I think their discipline will be very good.”
Q. This quarter-final has been a long time coming, how has the year been?
“It’s been a long time in the back of our minds. It was always going to be a case of if we get through our Pool we would be playing South Africa or New Zealand, that was the likelihood.
“We are here now. It is a little bit surreal. I can’t believe we are finally here. This time four years ago I was a supporter like you guys [due to Sexton’s injury, Ian Madigan started the 2015 quarter final against Argentina]. It is not a great place to be.”
Despite this being his third World Cup, Saturday will be Sexton’s first start in a quarter-final, having come off the bench against Wales in Wellington in 2011.
“Really looking forward to trying to show what we can do on the biggest stage, against the best team in the world. A team that hasn’t lost a world cup game since [losing to France in the 2007 quarter-final] so it is going to be an enormous challenge. But one we are excited about, really eager about; we want to make the people at home really proud.”
Q. Johnny, this New Zealand backline is really inexperienced. Can that work in your favour, can you take advantage?
“Relatively. To the old lads like us? It’s not something I have thought. Even their bench has a few caps with Sonny Bill Williams.
“Look it, there are a few guys like the wingers [George Bridge and Sevu Reece] only have a couple of caps each and Richie Mo’unga has only just come on this stage but all three have been really, really impressive. They have had some big games under their belt. Like, the South Africa game in the Pool when they performed really really well.
“They are the form players. They are the guys who were outstanding for the Crusaders all year. They have that winning mentality. I’m sure that’s why they were picked.”
Q. Johnny, why are you the only player here?
“Didn’t want to break routine really. 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 bus and I’ll do the same on the way back.”
Q. This is knockout rugby; how useful have the great days with Leinster and the Grand Slam been?
“I remember Declan Kidney saying that to us in 2011. 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 all those cups that you play at club level, and then the Heineken Cup.
“We were reared on it. We probably play a little bit more knockout rugby than New Zealand if you think that they go straight into the semis after the conference stages. So it doesn’t feel too different to other knock-out games I’ve been involved in and we should use our experiences there to guide us.”
Q. Johnny, these are the final weeks of Joe’s era, talk about his legacy?
“Ah how many times have I spoken about Joe? I’m going to get some serious slagging now when I get back to the hotel. There is already enough slagging about me and Joe’s relationship without delving any deeper.
“We had Risteard Cooper in just for lunch today and he did a bit of a skit on Joe which was very good and Joe took it very well.
“But look, Joe’s legacy really speaks for itself. We don’t want to get distracted by it being his last game, second last game, third last game. We’ll talk about him when it’s done. It will be the same for Rory, but his legacy speaks for itself.
“I have spoke about it on numerous occasions so you can go back and see what I said a few weeks ago.”
Q. Having played on some great teams over the years, where does this 23 rank?
“Yeah right up there, right up there. 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.
“That’s what gives us belief and confidence. But in terms of the team, yeah, right up there and our biggest strength is our collective, and we’d pretty much do anything for each other.”
Q. The Sexton and Murray halfback partnership passes out the O’Gara and Stringer record and now goes second behind the all-time record held by Larkham and Gregan, talk to us about how you and Conor have grown since the scraps between the pair of you in 2011?
“When we started off you’d never have believed we’d have played this many games together. We were like two strangers introduced to each other in those first two games. Look, we’ve gone from strength to strength. Conor’s a top quality operator, his quality of pass, his kicking game and the basics of what world class scrum halves are - he’s up against one tomorrow in Aaron Smith.
“It’s been a pleasure to play alongside him. I hope we get many more 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. But, we hope we’ve got a few more years left together.”