Jonathan Sexton says the Ireland squad are determined can give Joe Schmidt and Rory Best a winning Aviva Stadium send-off when they play in Saturday’s return match (kick-off 2pm).
In addition to Schmidt stepping down as Ireland head coach following the completion of the team’s Rugby World Cup campaign in Japan, 37-year-old captain Best will also bring his illustrious playing career to an end.
Both men have made enormous contributions to Irish Rugby, most notably the Grand Slam success of 2018. Schmidt and Best were also at the coalface for the back-to-back Championship triumphs of 2014 and 2015, while the Ulster hooker was also part of the squad that previously earned Grand Slam honours in 2009.
Sexton was a European Cup champion under Michael Cheika in the same year, before New Zealander Schmidt guided Leinster to subsequent Heineken Cup victories in 2011 and 2012.
“It will be (significant), for him (Schmidt) and Rory,” said Sexton, previewing this weekend’s warm-up encounter with Wales. “Rory is someone who has been there with Joe through all those games. We need to narrow the focus down to the Wales game in terms of what we have to do preparation-wise to build in towards Scotland.
“But in the back of our minds, when you talk about people that have had an impact on Irish Rugby, I’m not sure any coaches would go on the list. It would all be players and Rory would jump onto that playing list for his captaincy and for his playing for over 100, whatever (caps) he’s got now. I keep losing track!
“Joe, impact-wise. with Leinster to start off and with Ireland, has been phenomenal. Records speak for themselves. To do what he did in Leinster, we got to six finals in three years, we won four of them and to go on with three Championships with Ireland.
“Then also the special games where we’ve done things for the first time. We’ll miss him in terms of what he brings, what he has brought. We’ve got to have that in the back of our mind but again, he’ll drive it.”
This will be the third World Cup for Sexton in an already memorable international career. In contrast to the 2015 tournament when a series of injuries played a part in derailing Ireland’s campaign, it is felt there is greater depth to the squad this time around.
While Sexton cannot definitively say yet if this is the best assembled group of players Ireland has ever sent to a World Cup, he believes the game has evolved rapidly since his debut tournament in 2011.
“It’s hard to compare. Even when you look at those 2011 games, it’s like a different game almost. In a short period of time the game just moves on so it is very hard to compare squads. There is good strength in depth there now.
“That’s what we’ve built over the last couple of years through guys getting injured, Joe giving guys lots of chances through the last couple of Six Nations, and we’ll see if we are the strongest squad put together if we get past the quarter-final.”
Amongst a host of experienced faces, 19 players in the final squad of 31 will be appearing at a Rugby World Cup for the first time. The most recent debutant within the ranks is Munster lock Jean Kleyn, who made his international bow in last month’s GUINNESS Summer Series victory at home to Italy.
Having sat out the three warm-up fixtures to date, Sexton is yet to line out alongside Kleyn in a green shirt. Nonetheless, he has gotten a glimpse of what the towering second row can bring to the set-up.
“He’s working hard, the same as all of us. It’s a hard environment to come in to because there is a lot of detail, as there is in any international camp. It’s particularly hard here with the level of detail we go into and often it takes guys a couple of games to find their feet, to get used to the system. I’m sure he’ll get better from here on in.”
After watching on from the outside up until now, Sexton is expected to return in the green jersey this weekend. Despite acknowledging how disappointing the performance against England was, the Dubliner is confident that Schmidt’s men can continue to build leading into their World Cup Pool A opener against Scotland on Sunday, September 22. He added:
It’s very hard to comment on games you weren’t involved in, in my position. The guys obviously started well against England for 30 minutes, 10-8 up, I think. And then things just unravelled from there. Soft tries, good play by England and then suddenly we are chasing our tail and you’ve got a level of exhaustion after a tough week in Portugal. 33 degrees or whatever it was there.
“It’s tough on the guys, but that’s exactly why we had that game. It was probably the end of England’s preparation but the start of ours for some guys and it’s just important that we keep building now.
“Not listen to too much other than what is being said in the environment. Keep building and hopefully we see another step forward this week like we did last week, and keep building for that Scotland game.”