Chicago, November 2016 will forever be seared into the minds of Irish rugby supporters, for obvious reasons. The place and time of a first victory over New Zealand in 111 years has that effect and it was a moment to be savoured.
Johnny Sexton will have felt exactly the same after those heroics at Soldier Field but it was the rematch two weeks later back in Dublin, and the way the All Blacks reacted to their defeat by exacting their brutal retribution in a 21-9 revenge mission, that made Ireland’s fly-half realise they were being afforded the ultimate mark of respect.
The sheer physicality of a high-octane encounter at the Aviva Stadium that November evening forced Sexton off after just 19 minutes while midfielder Robbie Henshaw and back-row CJ Stander also fell by the wayside in the opening quarter.
There were also a number of questionable collisions that did not cover the All Blacks in glory despite some exhilarating play as they outscored Joe Schmidt’s team by three tries to none.
Malakai Fekitoa’s straight arm on Simon Zebo earned the centre a yellow card and subsequent one-week ban but others were fortunate to escape referee Jaco Peyper’s wrath.
Sexton yesterday was of the view that the game rose above the level of acceptable physicality.
“For the 19 minutes I lasted? It was physical for those 19 minutes. Look, it is always a very physical game.
“That one probably went over the edge, didn’t it? I think that game changed a lot, going forward.
“That was a massive moment where high tackles suddenly became what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. After that, I feel that things changed and you wouldn’t get away with that now.”
It also made Sexton, a nominee for World Rugby’s Player of the Year award this month, realise that Ireland had finally, properly, caught the All Blacks’ attention as was the case when he steered the British & Lions to victory in the second Test of their 2017 series in Wellington. Now, though, Ireland have to do it all over again.
“In some ways, it was a sign of respect and they were probably hurting from a few weeks previously. Look, ultimately, you only get the respect if you beat them.
“They say that themselves and you feel it when you beat them, you get some respect. Being a part of a few teams that have done it now, I think this side is capable of it.
“But, we need to get everything right at the weekend and we need to be close to our best.”
New Zealand coming to town is always a red letter day, even for Sexton’s young son Luca, who is already in his dad’s ear about looking forward to seeing the Haka. Having beaten them twice in his career, though, has not removed some of the aura that the All Blacks bring to every contest.
“They’ve always been the pinnacle really of international rugby. They’re always the team to beat, they’re always the best team in the world, since I’ve been playing they’ve always been number one, or for the last nine years anyway.
“They’ve always been number one, they’ve won the last two World Cup, so maybe if you ask guys from different generations they might have thought differently but for me it’s always been about trying to catch them, and I’ve been lucky enough to play in a couple of teams that have done that and now we want to stay up there with them.
“We don’t wantto be a flash in the pan team and challenge them once or twice, but that everytime we play against them it’s a really tough game.”
Ireland vice-captain Sexton expects nothing different this Saturday but knows his side must walk a disciplinary tightrope themselves if they are to stay on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes, the English official they have fallen foul of in the past.
“It will be up to Joe (Schmidt) and Rory (Best) to figure out how he’s going to go. We have to look hard at our discipline because you can’t give away too many penalties against the All Blacks. If you look over the years, we’ve given a lot of penalties away with him (Barnes). We need to figure out why and rectify that.
“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 sidestepped comment 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 a England-New Zealand press conference, that still baffles me,” the Ireland fly-half said. “I didn’t think we were playing England until February.”