Johnny Sexton has admitted it would have been a “big ask” for Conor Murray to have faced the All Blacks this weekend and the Ireland scrum-half not playing was “the smart thing”.
Murray, 29, was finally ruled out of the 2018 Guinness Series on Monday as he continues his recovery from a neck injury that has kept him sidelined since June.
Speculation, stoked by New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen without any denial from the Irish camp, was that the Munster scrum-half would make his comeback in this Saturday’s sell-out clash between the world champions and Ireland.
An IRFU squad update issued on Monday, though, confirmed that Murray would not join the squad and also that centre Robbie Henshaw had been ruled out for the remainder of the November Test window due to a hamstring issue which forced him out of last Saturday’s home opener against Argentina during the warm-up.
Murray’s long-term half-back partner Sexton rued the loss of both players after the squad had reviewed their 28-17 win over the Pumas at Carton House on Monday and of the scrum-half said: “I obviously stayed in touch with Conor a lot over the injury to see how he has been getting on and all the time (he's been) improving but I suppose he's just trying to make sure he can get it right from now and not be an issue going forward.
“Hopefully, we'll see him back soon, I'm not sure how soon but obviously a quality player, we'd hope to have him back...Munster or Ireland whenever he can.”
Sexton, who partnered number nine Kieran Marmion against Argentina but could be paired alongside his Leinster team-mate Luke McGrath or Ulster’s John Cooney, insisted it would be business as usual for him and Ireland in Murray’s absence and would not affect the way he played.
“Not too differently at all, to be perfectly honest. Look, he's a world-class player and three guys behind him are chasing him but I think they did well at the weekend, 'Marms' and Luke.
“They'll be better for that experience as well. I think the more time you spend in the environment in here, the more comfortable you get and the better you get. I'm sure those guys will go a step ahead again this week.”
As for his Leinster midfield partner Henshaw, Sexton added: “Robbie has been a big part of the team over the last number of years and he's bounced back from various different injuries last year, memorably for Leinster in that semi-final against the Scarlets where he had such an incredible performance after being out for so long.
“Look, I'm sure he'll bounce back quickly from it but he's obviously a loss. He's a loss for a lot of teams in the world and he'll be a loss for us this week. But the guys that are available will do a great job I'm sure.”
Ireland vice-captain Sexton also warned his team-mates that discipline would have to a priority in training this week as they prepare for a rematch with the All Blacks two years on from a brutally physical encounter at the Aviva Stadium when New Zealand were criticised for a string of high tackles, one of which earned Malakai Fekitoa a week's ban.
Sexton suggested what Hansen’s team did was not Ireland’s concern but this Saturday’s referee Wayne Barnes was an official for whom they had fallen foul of in the past.
“We pride ourselves on our discipline. We are coached to be as disciplined as we can be. We will look at a game and after the game we will get, not in trouble but it will be highlighted where we could have given away penalties.
“So our discipline, on a list of importance, is up there. We’ve come on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes in the past so it’s something we’re going to have to look at even more so this week. We try to play by the letter of the law but for whatever reason in certain games, we haven’t got that right with him.
“So we really need to have a look at ourselves and see can we be extra vigilant there. We can’t be worried about them because that’s their problem.
"From our point of view, we’ve been penalised a lot by him in the past, more so than any other ref so we really need to be wary of our own discipline this week.”
Sexton was also asked about a suggestion from England head coach Eddie Jones last week that he got preferential treatment from referees.
“I don’t know how I was mentioned in an England-New Zealand press conference, that still baffles me,” the Ireland fly-half said.
“I didn’t think we were playing England until February.”