There was a time when Johnny Sexton’s schoolboy half-back partner in Japan was Vinny Hammond.
Fast-forward 16 years into the week of a World Cup quarter-final and Hammond is still by Sexton’s side, as an IRFU performance analyst. But now the scrum-half is Conor Murray and he and Sexton are set to break Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara’s record of 55 Tests together as an Irish half-back partnership when they face the All Blacks this Saturday.
The fly-half admitted to doubts about his and Murray’s viability as a duo during their early days in 2011-12.
“If you saw us playing together at the start. I didn’t think we’d last much further after three or four caps, to be honest,” Sexton said.
“Yeah, it’s been a pleasure to play with him. He’s, on his day, world class — all the time he’s world class — and I love playing with him. We’ve become great mates over the last few years and it’s a little bit special to play that many Tests with the same guy, to start that many Tests with the same guy.
“We’ve got a really good relationship now and hopefully it will be as good as it ever has been on Saturday.”
Sexton and his former St Mary’s College team-mate Hammond still make a good combination, at least in front of a microphone, on the evidence of their joint press conference in Fukuoka yesterday morning before the Ireland party decamped from Kyushu Island and headed to Tokyo for Saturday’s last-eight clash.
Hammond has been analysing the All Blacks’ threats for a long time now and specifically in anticipation of this quarter-final clash since Ireland’s last meeting with the world champions last November in Dublin, a 16-9 home victory that sets this Tokyo Stadium showdown up very nicely indeed.
Hammond and Sexton first shared a trip to Fukuoka with St Mary’s in 2002 when they were introduced to New Zealand rugby at the Sanix World Rugby Invitational Youth Tournament. It proved an eye-opener for both players and Hammond extended his sympathies to current half-back partner Murray for staying the distance with Sexton better than he did.
‘We were here in 2002,” said Hammond. “We played together for a couple of seasons. Yeah, I feel sorry for Conor!
Conor’s actually the guy who you should be crediting for lasting that long, but yeah, it’s nice to come back. We played Wesley College. We arrived in here at midnight and I think the next morning at, like, half-seven we kicked off or something. We kicked off against Wesley College from New Zealand.
“So, we were facing the haka at half-seven in the morning! We got absolutely pumped, it was a disaster.”
Sexton disagrees, countering with: “I played well!” There are a lot of memories, but the fly-half said: “We were 16, so there’s not too many we can talk about.
“We were all in one room. There were 35 of us in one room. There were triple bunk beds so you can imagine getting in at midnight was one problem and then I suppose not getting any sleep was the other problem.
“The fact that there was 35 in one room with no air con… I don’t think there was air con?”
Hammond: ‘They just put big massive blocks of ice in the rooms to cool it down.”
Wesley, from Auckland, provided their first experience of playing a New Zealand team and, Sexton added: “They were probably the best team in New Zealand. I think they’re famous for producing All Blacks. I actually never looked at their team to see who came out of it?”
Hammond: “I think (Australian Wallaby prop and then a back-rower, Sekope) Kepu was the only one who might have played against us?”
Enquiring of the final score proves a mistake, with Hammond joking: “These things aren’t important!”
Hammond has other notable connections, including his cousin Vinny, Dundalk manager Vinny Perth, who is just one game away from securing a domestic treble in his maiden season. Hammond takes a keen interest in Dundalk’s progress but he is hoping he has a good excuse not to be back from Japan in time for the FAI Cup final.
“Yeah, no, hopefully not, I think it’s the fourth of November. But it’s brilliant for him. He’s come in, he’s been at the club for six years as an assistant and stepped up. Obviously he was nervous at the start of the season and I think they were eight points off the top at one stage, so to come back....they went 31 games unbeaten, lost the other night, it’s been brilliant for him.
“So it was nice as well to get up in the middle of the night here when we were jet-lagged and be able to stream the Dundalk games and see him win trophies, it was brilliant.”