And the Leinster out-half credits that agonising defeat with laying the foundations for everything Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team has achieved — most notably two Six Nations titles and a first ever win in South Africa — in the time since.
Ireland were 22-17 to the good with just six minutes to play against the All Blacks in 2013 when Sexton stood over a gettable kick that would have left the hosts more than a try in front. The commentator on New Zealand TV actually described it as “a meat and drink” kick. His subsequent miss left the door ajar and the world champions duly pounded through it.
That turning point will be a regular source of discussion between now and Saturday week when the sides meet, in Chicago, for the first time since that fateful day and the Ireland out-half is adamant he learned “a hell of a lot” from the missed opportunity.
“When I kicked the ball I thought it was going over,” he explained. “It was a great strike but it was just a small little block and why I blocked it out there … that’s really what I learned. I talked about it with different guys and it was one tiny little thing that I did.”
The thing is: he’s had at least five similar pressure kicks from that very same part of the pitch — on the ‘22’ and approximately 14 metres in from the touchline — and has converted every one of them, whether at club level or with Ireland.
“It’s just regret really, about what would have happened if the kick had gone over.
“They could have scored two tries and it wouldn’t have mattered but obviously that hurt missing it. It would have been another step towards beating them. We looked at it after the kick went wide as well and the amount of mistakes we made that we could have put right. But I can take the flak and the criticism. It’s fine, but hopefully I get another chance at it at some stage.”
Chances are he will at least line up against the world champions in Soldier Field. Though withdrawn at half-time during Leinster’s Champions Cup loss to Montpellier on Sunday, he has declared himself to be “100% fit” after his recent hamstring issues.
Such is New Zealand’s form right now — on a world record 18 wins in a row — that it would be an achievement in itself were Ireland in a position to present Sexton with a similar game-winning opportunity in Chicago, or in Dublin a few weeks later.
As Ryan Crotty’s late try in 2013 demonstrated, the All Blacks are never beaten until the final whistle but Ireland have staged late shows too. Sexton pointed to a narrow win over the Wallabies almost a year to the day later — when he slotted a key penalty late on — as proof that the lessons from that evening had been absorbed.
By rights though, Ireland shouldn’t have a prayer this time. The All Blacks have just completed an utterly dominant Rugby Championship campaign, one in which Australia, South Africa and Argentina have all been beaten by frightening scorelines despite some fine performances by the opposition at times.
Ireland haven’t played competitively since the third test against the Springboks at the end of June and, as Jamie Heaslip said this week, they will have clocked in for just three full training sessions this week and next by the time they square up at the home of the Chicago Bears.
“They’ve lost some of the best players that have ever played the game and it’s like they never existed,” said Sexton.
“The guys that have come in have just taken over. It’s obviously a great culture that they’ve got and great values, all of that, so guys come in and they have to live up to expectations.
“They’re the best team in the world and they’re being talked about as the best team ever. Now, we’ve got to go and try stop the winning run. It would be typically Irish to win your first game against them in Chicago after the few weeks that we’ve just had. To stop their winning run would be really Irish.”