Johnny Sexton insists Ireland’s World Cup squad are all business as they prepare for Saturday’s quarter-final against the All Blacks, a stark contrast to four years ago when he believes they were overly emotional a week too early.
Fresh from having helped secure Ireland’s qualification for the knockout stages in the weekend victory over Samoa, fly-half Sexton, 33, detected a different tone as Joe Schmidt’s signed off their Pool A campaign with a clinical 47-5 victory to the emotional celebrations that met their final pool game against France in Cardiff at the 2015 World Cup.
Ireland peaked with that game, a 24-9 victory to top the group but it came at a cost, and not just the high injury toll, which accounted for Sexton on the eve of the game, as well as Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony while Sean O’Brien missed the quarter-final with a suspension.
The fly-half is now part of a fully-fit Ireland squad preparing for Saturday’s quarter-final, yet he believes it’s more than a clean bill of health that will give Ireland confidence this weekend.
“I suppose the big difference is we finished the pool and you saw the difference in celebration between the last World Cup and this one,” Sexton said. “It was very emotional after the last World Cup, winning the pool game, whereas I think we’re just business as usual.
“This is where we always wanted to get to, where we feel that this is the little bit of history that we can make, getting Ireland into their first-ever semi-final and then we can reevaluate after that. Like I said, this is where we wanted to be and we knew, New Zealand or South Africa, for us it was much the same.
They pose different challenges but they’re both world-class teams and we knew either fixture was going to be really tough. This is the one we’ve got and we’ve got to roll with it now and looking forward to it.
Sexton will be hoping for a better outcome than four years ago after being forced to withdraw from the 2015 quarter-final against Argentina with an adductor strain being forced to watch a comprehensive 43-20 defeat by a rampant Pumas side against a makeshift and inexperienced Irish outfit.
“I’ve had disappointments, missed out on those big days. You have regrets watching games (of that magnitude) so hopefully I can get out there on the big stage and put in a big performance,” he said.
Sexton’s World Cup experience will turn full circle on Saturday as Ireland renews rivalries with the All Blacks and the fly-half is licking his lips at the prospect of the biggest and most exciting challenge of his career.
It was as a 10-year-old in primary school that he first got the World Cup bug, watching his country open their 1995 pool campaign in South Africa against Jonah Lomu and company in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, though Ireland were on the wrong end of a 43-19 defeat. Fourteen years on and Sexton is now looking ahead to playing the All Blacks in a World Cup quarter-final.
“Yeah, it’s the biggest. And the most exciting,” Sexton, said of meeting the hat-trick-chasing defending champions.
“We said it after Samoa, we said ‘Look, lads, no matter who we play, this is the biggest game of our lives.’ You feel it straight away. You feel it when you wake up in the morning and your mind just goes straight to the game. So sleep will probably be a challenge (for the players) this week.
“But it’s where you wanted to be as a kid watching. I think my first memory of watching Ireland in the World Cup was against New Zealand. I think I was in Bective.
"It’s where you want to be and it’s where you want to challenge yourself. It’s where we can create something a little bit special back in the country. I am sure the country will go mad on Saturday morning, so I can’t wait for it.”