Sexton: We can make history if we give our all
Ireland hope to reach semi-finals for first time Talisman trains alone as rest of squad stay at base
Johnny Sexton sounded a rallying cry last night as Ireland prepared to face off against New Zealand in the biggest match in the country’s history, demanding that his teammates walk off the pitch at the end of today’s World Cup quarter-final being able to look themselves in the eye and know that they had played their best.
Sexton, who practised alone at the Tokyo Stadium yesterday, with the rest of the Ireland team eschewing the three-hour round trip from their Tokyo Disneyland hotel, struck a calm but determined note.
The sense of desperation back home has grown with each quadrennial failure; each near-miss. Six times Ireland have made the quarter-finals of the World Cup and six times they have come up short.
Expectations this time are only slightly tempered by the fact that they are facing tournament favourites and back-to-back world champions New Zealand.
Ireland have only themselves to blame for that, having lost to Japan in the pool stages. But the facts are what they are. All week Ireland have been candid about the reality that they could play their best today and still end up losing.
Sexton repeated that again yesterday. But Ireland’s talisman, who was clear that this team were “right up there” with the best he had ever played with, said it was vital they held up their side of the bargain and produced a performance of which they could all be proud.
“Of course we’d like it to be better, but it is what it is,” Sexton replied when asked about the team’s unwanted quarter-final record. “There’s nothing we can do about previous results now. All we can do now is concentrate on putting in our best performance. That will give us a chance. And if we can walk off that pitch having played our best, having given it everything, we can look at ourselves afterwards no matter what.
“Of course we know we can make history, we can create something a little bit special if we can do that [reach a semi-final]. But I can’t really speak about Ireland’s record because it’s been a different team every time.”
Sexton was speaking after practising with skills coach Richie Murphy beneath dank Tokyo skies. Joe Schmidt decided against holding a captain’s run at the stadium because of the length of journey from Tokyo Disneyland.
“I’ve never not kicked at the stadium a day before the game and I wasn’t going to start something new now,” Sexton explained. “As you saw, I had the bus to myself, I had the pitch to myself. I chilled out on the bus and I’ll do the same on the way back [now].”
Ireland fans will hope Sexton’s solitary appearance at the stadium was not a sign. They badly need the rest of the team to turn up today. Ireland have looked an entirely different proposition when their main man has been on the pitch, but he should not be expected to carry the team on just his shoulders.
Today will be the 56th time that Sexton and scrum-half Conor Murray have played in tandem, an Ireland record, and second only to Australia’s Will Genia and Stephen Larkham in rugby history. Murray is also key, and looked to be back to something approaching his best form during the pool stages.
Sexton denied Ireland’s record in quarter-finals meant they were illequipped to deal with knockout rugby. “I remember Declan Kidney saying that to us in 2011, that we had been reared on knockout rugby,” he said. “We came up through the schools system, club rugby, knockout rugby, played for Mary’s, the All Ireland, then the Heineken Cups. So we’re sort of reared on it. We probably play a little bit more than New Zealand.
“We’re really looking forward to trying to show what we can do against the best team in the world, a team that hasn’t lost a game in two World Cups. It’s going to be an enormous challenge but one we’re excited and eager about. We want to make people at home proud.” 1991: Ireland 18, Australia 19 “Devastated” is the only word Jack Clarke can find to describe how he felt when Michael Lynagh went through for his late try to scupper Irish dreams at Lansdowne Road. Clarke admits he took this particularly hard as Lynagh scored on his wing in front of a capacity home crowd. “I still think about it now. Sometimes it is hard to believe it is 28 years later but it was just an awful feeling, Minutes earlier, we had fans run on to the pitch after Gordon Hamilton had scored that amazing try and then to feel it slip from us was just an awful feeling.”