Johnny Sexton expects backlash from New Zealand over recent Irish wins
Johnny Sexton is expecting a backlash from a New Zealand team seeking revenge for their 2018 defeat to Ireland when the sides meet in tomorrow's RWC quarter-final – but suggested the All Blacks would see red if they were as aggressive as when they last avenged a defeat to Ireland, back in 2016.
Speaking on the eve of what he has described as the biggest game of his career, the current World Player of the Year recalled a bruising encounter in Dublin, a week after Ireland’s historic 40-19 win at Soldier Field, Chicago.
Before those Autumn Internationals, World Rugby had warned that “reckless contact” with a player’s head could see red cards being shown, leading to a belief that high tackles would receive the ultimate sanction.
Three years on, that has become a reality at this World Cup - but Sexton noted that the All Blacks escaped sanction in Dublin on their way to a 21-9 win in a thunderous but often ugly contest.
“As far as that last game went, that was almost the turning point for a lot of the rule changes about high tackles,” Sexton said at Tokyo Stadium on Friday, after being the only Ireland player to take to the pitch the day before the knockout game.
“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.”
New Zealand flanker Sam Cane was fortunate to receive only a yellow card for his early shoulder charge into Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw’s neck – an incident that would almost certainly produce a red card three years on.
In the same game, the All Blacks’ scrum-half Aaron Smith and centre Malakai Fekitoa were sin-binned for high tackles either side of half-time that could also be seen as red-card offences in the new climate.
“I don't think it will happen again,” Sexton added. “They had a game (in August 2019) when they went down to 14 against Australia, so I'm sure their discipline will be very good on the day.”
With his team-mates back at their hotel, Sexton cut a solitary figure on the pitch as he practiced alongside Ireland’s kicking coach, Richie Murphy. The rest of the match-day 23 went through their paces elsewhere in Tokyo earlier in the day, but Sexton did not want to break a routine that has served him well over the years.
“I’ve never not kicked at a stadium the day before a game, so I wasn't going to start something new now” he said. “I just wanted to get my preparation done as usual. I had the bus to myself, had the pitch to myself - which was a bit strange, but I was able to chill out.”
Ireland are seeking to advance beyond the quarter-final stage for the first time and their 34-year-old talisman said they will enter the game full of self-belief.
“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."