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Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton has described criticism of the team’s Rugby World Cup performances as “strange” – and said confidence is rising within the squad ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final against defending champions New Zealand.
While Ireland were impressive in beating Samoa 47-5 in their final pool game, their shock defeat to Japan and an unconvincing win against Russia drew some sharp media criticism back home.
“There's been some negativity around us and we’d feel that's been pretty strange,” said Sexton. The 34-year-old was dismissive of comparisons made - after those sub-par performances - to Ireland’s disastrous showing in the 2007 tournament,
“It's just something that we get a sense of,” he said. “You get texts saying, ‘Keep the head up, we're still behind you' and you get a feeling that there are some things out there that aren't great.
“We know things weren't great but it’s funny some people trying to compare things to 2007 when they just scraped past Namibia - and we have just beaten Russia 35-0. How there can be comparisons there, I'm not quite sure - and in totally different conditions.”
Japan's thrilling win against Scotland - which led to extraordinary scenes of celebration around the host nation, with Irish supporters often in the thick of them - meant they topped Pool A and will play South Africa on Sunday, leaving Ireland to face an All Blacks team in ominously good form.
Looking ahead to what he expects will be “an incredibly tough game”, the veteran playmaker said Ireland can take some belief from their 2016 and 2018 wins against the tournament favourites.
“We know they’re the best team in the world. We can take a little bit of confidence from the fact that we have got that monkey off our back and we’ve done it a couple of times, which gives us that belief.
“But this is a quarter-final of a World Cup and things are different. Even if we hadn't beaten them, anything can happen in a quarter-final. We've seen that over the years even with the All Blacks, so we're looking forward to it.”
Asked what he was expecting from the holders, Sexton was straight to the point: “We’re expecting them to bring their best.”
He brushed off the suggestion that Steve Hansen’s team would have to cope with the pressure of expectation, as they seek a third consecutive title: “I watched the Amazon documentary on them - they are beating teams by 40 points and still getting slated at home. So that pressure is always with them, every time they pull on the jersey.”
There was also a sense from the current World Player of the Year that beating New Zealand in the knockout stages of a World Cup would be perhaps the greatest moment of a long and decorated career.
“It will be very special if we can get a win because often in a November series they’re tired, they’ve got holidays coming up and maybe they’ve had a little bit of an excuse. But this week they’ll be throwing their best at it out there. We've got to concentrate on getting the best version of the Irish team out there and we'll see if that's good enough.”
There were signs in Saturday’s victory against the Samoans that Sexton, having recovered from some niggling injuries, is returning to the form that made him arguably the world’s best fly-half less than a year ago.
Self-belief is not something he has ever been short on, but Sexton is also relentless in his quest for improvement. “You never feel too far away from your best - you just feel that sometimes things just don’t go your way in one regard or other, a niggle or two. I never lost confidence in what I can do and I don’t think many 10s do lose confidence.
“When you go through bad patches you know that they’re part and parcel and you’ll come out the other side. I was happy with some parts on Saturday, other parts I’d like to brush up on before New Zealand. I’ll need to play better on Saturday - and we all will to get the right result.”
If Ireland are to reach the semi-finals for the first time, they will need to be “clinical” in all they do, he said, against a team whose performances to date in the tournament have been defined by that word.
“When you do get a chance you have to take it. That sounds easy, but it's a lot harder to do against such a quality team.
“But if you can do that, then you give yourself a chance. Your defence has to be the best it can be - and our discipline too. That's pretty much the whole game, so we'll need to be pretty close to as good as we can be in all aspects to be able to get the result.”
If there is a key difference between this quarter-final and others in which Ireland have flopped – notably against Argentina in 2015 and Wales in 2011 - it’s that they go into it as underdogs.
“We're building nicely, we haven't hit our best performance yet and we need to get close to that to get the right result on Saturday.”
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