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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby World Cup -

in Tokyo

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.”

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