Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton has said victory – rather than the manner of it – will be the main target when they finally return to action against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 3.30pm).
Considering the team’s supporters will be watching the game from their sofas instead of the stands, a number of players have been asked this week if there is an onus on them to deliver a spectacle of attacking rugby that can keep the fans entertained from the very opening minutes of the contest.
Yet, given the perils of underestimating any would-be international opponents, Sexton knows this has to be a secondary consideration.
“With the restrictions that have come in now and the country is gone back to level 5, there’s obviously a sense that the whole country will be watching us,” he said.
“Most of the time we’re very lucky that we’re always being looked at. I suppose it’s an even bigger responsibility, but Italy are going to be in the same boat as us as well.
“Both teams will be very motivated, but any time you play for Ireland it’s a big responsibility. There’s a little bit of extra onus on us this week. Obviously we need to win the game first and foremost. That’s most important obviously. It could come down to points difference and bonus points.
“That will come later in the game, but we need to try and win the game first and foremost. Putting on a show isn’t something we spoke about, but putting in a good performance…it’s something that we’re very conscious of and want to do.”
Replicating the set-up at their respective provinces – Leinster in Sexton’s case – the Ireland squad have been adhering to strict protocols at both their team hotel and training base.
Once they are out on the field at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown, life is relatively familiar for Sexton and company. It is when they step off the training ground that extra care is required to keep themselves safe.
The most normal thing we’re doing at the moment is our rugby training, where we don’t have to wear masks and we can be around each other and where we’re outside.
“That’s always the time where we feel most comfortable and it’s even more evident now. When you’re out on the pitch, it’s the most normal life gets.
“Then you go into meetings and it’s masks on, two metres apart. We have to have most of our meetings on the pitch really, because it’s outdoors and all those things. It’s a very different camp life but, like I said, we feel very privileged and we’re very lucky to keep doing what we’re doing.
“Obviously there were fears that, if the country went to Level 5, would we be allowed to play at all? We’re very grateful for the chance to be able to continue as it is.”
As captain and the elder statesman within the group at 35 years of age, Sexton’s role becomes even more crucial during these uncertain times.
Whilst being incredibly aware of how much the nation is being gripped by Covid-19, the talismanic out-half believes the squad can not allow it to consume them for every waking moment.
“That’s the balance that we have to find, because you don’t want it to be a burden. What you guys (the media) are asking us about and the duty we feel, we don’t want that to be something that weighs us down.
We want to use it as an opportunity and a privilege to do our thing in front of the whole country. That’s what we started the game to do, when you’re a kid, to get to where we are now.
“To put the best version of yourself out there in front of your family, your friends and all of the supporters. We can’t let that be a massive pressure.
“And how we’ve done that, the coaches have been brilliant with getting the right balance between having fun, getting serious and then getting down to rugby and hard work. The balance has been brilliant since Andy (Farrell) has taken over.”
Whereas Sexton was once the new kid on the block, it is the likes of Hugo Keenan who are now the novices within the Ireland camp.
One of five uncapped players within the squad, the former Blackrock College student, who won a Leinster Schools Senior Cup title alongside Joey Carbery and Caelan Doris in 2014, has been rewarded for his impressive post-lockdown performances in Leinster’s back-three.
For Sexton, Keenan’s inclusion over this autumn period is just reward for the hard work he has continued to produce behind the scenes at provincial level.
“Hugo has has taken off in camp how he left Leinster, which has been outstanding. It’s amazing the way he has taken that chance, whether it has been on the wing or 15.
“I can’t say he deserves it more than anyone else, because I don’t see what goes on day-to-day in the other provinces, but I know the hard work he has put in with Leinster.
“He deserves to be here, whether the coaches think he’s ready to go or not. He’s definitely putting his hand up in training and doing the right things. We’ll see what way selection goes.
“We don’t even know the team. Sometimes we have to pretend we don’t know the team to you guys, but we actually don’t know the team at the moment.
“Selection will be tomorrow and it was a good competitive session today, which is exactly what the coaches wanted. They wanted guys looking to force their way into the team and it was very mixed out there. It was a good start to the week and hopefully we can keep going tomorrow.”
It will be a hectic day of rugby in south Dublin on Saturday, with the Ireland Women’s team also resuming their Six Nations campaign against Italy at nearby Energia Park (kick-off 6.30pm).
Away from his own participation, Sexton is thrilled that so much sport is set to be played while the country is under Level 5 of the Irish Government’s Plan for Living with COVID-19 framework.
It’s fantastic for all the teams and it’s the same with the Gaelic and the hurling. Those big games get to go ahead. Like I’ve said, we’re very privileged to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re very lucky.
“There’s a lot of people who can’t do that and wish they could. It’s great news all round and hopefully the women finish off their Six Nations on a high.”