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dark days Past ‘scars’ fresh in Johnny Sexton’s memory as the All Blacks loom


Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, right, with Garry Ringrose during an Ireland squad session this week. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, right, with Garry Ringrose during an Ireland squad session this week. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, right, with Garry Ringrose during an Ireland squad session this week. Photo: Sportsfile

It is perhaps no surprise that Johnny Sexton has blocked his first experience of playing against New Zealand from his memory.

New Plymouth, June 2010 was a dark day for Irish rugby, as the All Blacks dished out a 66-28 beating to the tourists.

Coming off the bench with 11 minutes left for what was only his seventh cap, Sexton got a brief taste of New Zealand’s ruthless streak before he got an even greater insight five months later when he started the 38-18 drubbing in Dublin.

That kind of mental baggage can stay with a player for years and Sexton had to bear those scars until Ireland finally notched a first victory over them in 2016.

For many of the squad who will be involved in this Saturday’s showdown, it will be their first time going up against the All Blacks.

On the one hand, there may be an element of trepidation that they will be caught off guard by the ferocious intensity that awaits, yet a glass-half-full approach would suggest there will be a fearlessness amongst the likes of Rónan Kelleher, Caelan Doris and Hugo Keenan.

“The first time I came up against them was one of the first games in the Aviva, I was blown away by the speed of the game, the physicality,” Sexton recalled.

“But I think that’s international rugby, there is a big difference. They epitomise that.

“It’s sort of not letting that shock you, being prepared for it. We trained well [yesterday], we trained at a high speed with a view to what it’s going to be like on Saturday. That’s the thing you have to be prepared for.”

Sexton will be the main driver behind ensuring the younger players know what to expect this weekend.

In his previous 13 games against the All Blacks, the Ireland captain has been on the winning side three times, meaning there have been far more bad days than good.

“There were a lot of scars for me,” he admitted. “Go back to 2013, where we missed a shot at goal that would have put us two scores clear with probably eight minutes left, they held the ball for four minutes and scored, and got two chances at the conversion, that was a huge scar.

“That was something that took us a long time to get over, took me a long time to get over. Once you learn from it and bounce back from it, then we had the big win in Chicago and then we backed that up at home when we beat them.

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“Like I said, nothing ever comes easy against them but that’s what happens when you’re the best in the world. You’ve got to go and work for it. We’re willing to work for it and we’re going to give it our best shot.”

Sexton has achieved a lot in his illustrious career, and if his insatiable drive is anything to go by, he feels as though he has a lot more left to win. But this could be the one and only shot he gets at captaining an Irish team to victory over New Zealand on home soil.

A three-Test tour awaits next summer, but winning in front of a sold-out Aviva Stadium crowd would make it extra special.

“Yeah, it would add a little bit,” the 36-year-old acknowledged.

“I think it would still be special if I wasn’t captain but there is a little bit of that there, of course. As captain, you’re desperate for the team to be successful.

“I was always desperate for the team to be successful even when I wasn’t but if you can imagine that there is another bit of – not pressure because it is a privilege – but there is a ramp up in terms of how I want the team to go well, [to] win and perform.

“Because it is a reflection of your leadership, a reflection on all of us how we perform so, yeah, it would mean a lot. But like I said, it would have meant a lot when I wasn’t [captain] as well.”

After the emotion surrounding the last week leading up to his 100th cap, this has been more of a typical build-up, but with the All Blacks in town, the stakes are always high.

In a way, Sexton is relieved to have gotten the significant milestone out of way rather than having it as an extra distraction in a week that already demands so much of Ireland’s talisman.

“Definitely, it was a bit draining last week,” he added. “It was an emotional week from the jersey presentation to all the messages coming in from different people. Not that it takes its toll, you wouldn’t want it any other way.

“But by the time it came to Saturday morning, it was, ‘I’ve got a game to play now, I’ve to switch in’. Look, there were parts of my game I was very happy with, there were parts I need to improve on this week but, yeah, I’m glad, not that it’s over because it was a special day for me and my family and those around me, all those close to me, I wouldn’t change it. But I’m glad it’s back to business this week.”

Nothing like a visit from the All Blacks to sharpen the mind.

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