Following Ireland’s historic first win over New Zealand at Soldier Field in 2016, the All Blacks travelled to Dublin for the return Test a week later and it was a match that left a sour taste in a lot of mouths.
New Zealand attempted to stamp their authority on the game but crossed the line on a number of occasions. Robbie Henshaw was stretchered off the field after ten minutes with Johnny Sexton, CJ Stander and Simon Zebo also forced off.
Meanwhile, only Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa were shown yellow cards while Sam Cane escaped punishment for his reckless hit on Henshaw.
The narrative following that game was that a wounded New Zealand came to Dublin looking to lay down a marker after falling to defeat to Ireland for the first time in their history.
A similar narrative has emerged ahead of tomorrow’s crunch quarter-final clash following Ireland’s 16-9 defeat of the All Blacks last year, the first win on home soil for Ireland.
Johnny Sexton is expecting a backlash from New Zealand but while he feels that the nasty encounter in 2016 paved the way for rule changes in rugby, the Leinster out-half has no doubt that they will be keeping their discipline in check tomorrow.
“I’m sure that’s what they’ll be speaking about leading into the game. As far as that last game went, that was almost the turning point for a lot of the rule changes about high tackles.
“Some of the yellow cards that were given out and some things that were missed, they would be reds now. They probably weren’t intentional at the time, but if they happened now there would be bigger consequences.
“So I don’t think it will happen again. They had a game when they went down to 14 against Australia, so I’m sure their discipline will be very good on the day.”
Four years ago, Ireland fell to a shock defeat to Argentina at the quarter-final stages. Sexton missed that game through injury but he is thankful to still be around the squad and get another crack at a World Cup knockout game.
The Ireland vice-captain admits this quarter-final has been in the back of the players’ minds for a long time now.
“Yeah, it’s been a long time in the back of our minds. The likelihood always going to be a case that if we got through our pool we’d play South Africa or New Zealand.
“And we’re here now. It’s a little bit surreal, it’s a little bit ‘I can’t believe it’s finally here’. This time four years ago I was a spectator like you guys and it’s not a great place to be.
“So I’m really looking forward to going out there on the biggest stage and trying to show what we can do against the best team in the world, a team that hasn’t lost for two World Cups.
“So it’s going to be an enormous challenge, but one we’re really excited about and we’ll be trying to make the people at home really proud.”
That defeat to Argentina last time around signalled the end of yet another failed attempt at winning rugby’s greatest prize.
Despite consistently being recognised as one of the top teams in the world, Ireland have never made it beyond the final eight of a World Cup. Sexton hopes to create that bit of history tomorrow but admits the current group of players can do nothing to change the past.
“Of course we’d like it to be better. There’s nothing we can do about the previous results, all we can do is concentrate now on putting in our best performance tomorrow – and that will give us a chance.
“If we can walk off the pitch tomorrow having played our best, given everything, we’ll be able to look at ourselves no matter what.
“We know we can create history and that would be special, but I can’t really (discuss) Ireland’s record because it’s been a different group every time.”
Defeat tomorrow would spell the end of Joe Schmidt’s tenure in charge of Ireland. With many claiming that the New Zealander’s legacy hangs in the balance.
According to Sexton, though, Schmidt’s legacy speaks for itself.
“I’ve talked about Joe a lot. I’ll get some serious slagging now when I go back to the hotel. There’s already enough slagging about my relationship with Joe, to delve any deeper.
“We had Risteard Cooper (Irish comedian) in for lunch today and he did a bit of a skit on Joe, which was very good – and Joe took it very well. But Joe’s legacy really speaks for itself.
“We don’t want to get distracted by it being his last game, second last game, third last game. We’ll talk about him when it’s done.”
While Schmidt’s legacy as Ireland’s greatest ever coach is firmly cemented, Sexton will enhance his own legacy tomorrow when himself and Conor Murray become the most capped Irish half-back pairing in Rugby World Cup history.
The duo moves to second in the all-time list behind current Munster coach Stephen Larkham and scrum-half George Gregan who represented Australia.
Sexton reflected on their journey together, starting out as two strangers before going on to become the beating heart of Ireland’s best-ever side. However, the man himself knows that the pair could be on borrowed time once this World Cup campaign comes to a close.
“When we started off you wouldn’t have believed that we’d have gone on and played this many games together.
“It was like two strangers, we were almost introducing ourselves to each other in the first few games. But we’ve gone from strength to strength. He’s a top-quality operator.
“It’s been a pleasure to play alongside him and I hope that we get many more together. At the end of the World Cup, you guys will probably start calling for our heads because we’ll be too old and the next batch has to come through – you can see it already. But we hope we’ve got a few more years left together.”
Finally, with the All Blacks waiting in the wings tomorrow, Sexton was asked whether Ireland will look to exploit an inexperienced New Zealand backline with four players from Ronan O’Gara’s Crusaders team named to start.
Sexton scoffed at the suggestion that New Zealand are inexperienced highlighting the impressive performances some of the Crusaders players have put in so far.
“Inexperienced?! Compared to the old lads like us! It’s not something I saw when I looked at their backline. Even the bench has a few caps, with Sonny Bill Williams there.
“There are a couple of guys in there, the wingers only have a couple of caps each and Richie Mo’unga has only just come on the stage, but all three have been really, really impressive.
“They’ve had some pretty big games. If you go to that South Africa game, even in the pool (stage), they did really well – and they are form players. They’re the guys that were outstanding for the Crusaders all year, they have that winning mentality and I’m sure that’s why they are picked.”