For the 34-year-old World Player of the Year this, finally, is the big one. Picked on the bench against Wales in 2011 and ruled out through injury against Argentina four years ago, it seems slightly incredible to think that Johnny Sexton is in line to start what will be his first World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks.
In his distinguished career Sexton has won 93 caps, including six for the British and Irish Lions, won a Grand Slam, two more Six Nations titles and four European Cups. But it’s not stretching things to say that this is the biggest game of his career.
“Yeah, it’s the biggest,” he explained on Monday. “And in that regard then, it is the most exciting. 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 this morning and your mind just goes straight to the game. So sleep will probably be a challenge this week.
“But yeah, it’s where you want 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,” he recalled of the All Blacks’ 43-19 win in Ireland’s opening pool game of the 1995 World Cup in Johannesburg.
Sexton was nine at the time, and would be generally running around the club where his dad Jerry played. Ireland took the lead through a Gary Halpin try and, in his naivety, the nine-year-old kid thought that his country’s team would go on to win.
“It’s where you want to be,” he added, “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.”
He always believed that this opportunity might knock again after the disappointment of four years ago when, looking back, Sexton admits the Irish team were a little too emotional after beating France in the pool decider. This time around he said qualification for the last eight was more a case of 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 re-evaluate 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 we’re looking forward to it.”
There were few more encouraging signs than Conor Murray and Sexton settling into a familiar groove against Samoa with their decision-making, kicking and execution. Murray had three try-scoring assists, with few better in this tournament than the laser-like pass for Jordan Larmour’s try, and Sexton scored two himself in an 18-point haul.
This quarter-final is notable for another significant landmark in that Sexton will start a 56th test alongside Murray for Ireland, thereby eclipsing the total of Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara. With two more tests together for the Lions, only the World Cup winning Wallabies halfback pairing of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham have played more in the history of the game.
“It is (special) if you saw us playing together at the start,” said Sexton, only half-jokingly. “I didn’t think we’d last much further after three or four caps, to be honest. 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 is, 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 Murray have also been the halfback pairing in the last three tests against the All Blacks, Ireland winning two of them, as well as being re-united for the win and draw in Wellington and Auckland which earned the Lions a share of the test series. Ireland, with Sexton pulling the strings and Kieran Marmion at scrumhalf, also won the most recent clash in Dublin less than a year ago.
“I’m sure they’ll look at that game in November and say ‘we can play a lot better’. So I’m sure they will do that and now it’s up to us to raise our game a little bit to go with them and try and get on the right side of the result.”
Nonetheless, the recent wins should embolden Ireland with more self-belief and, for better or worse, earn more respect from the All Blacks than has ever been the case previously.
‘I’m sure we’ve earned a little bit of their respect. I’ve seen a lot in the past, people saying the only way you can gain that respect is by beating them. We’ve done that so hopefully they respect us a little bit. I don’t know if they do, they’ll have to answer that themselves, but all that stuff doesn’t really matter come Saturday.
“It’s all about how we can perform on the day under the pressure and that’s going to be our big challenge over the next five days, preparing unbelievably well to do that.”
And with this media appearance tucked away nice and early in the week, that’s exactly what Sexton will do.