Jonathan Sexton will face New Zealand for the 18th and final time in his much-decorated career on Saturday, overhauling iconic Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones for the most Tests by any Northern Hemisphere player against the All Blacks.
Sexton played in all three Tests during the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour, and this weekend’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final in Paris will mark his fifteenth appearance for Ireland against New Zealand.
Some of Irish Rugby’s most heralded players, including modern day greats like Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, never got to taste victory against the All Blacks, but Sexton has done so on six occasions.
Five of those have come in Ireland’s last eight meetings with the three-time Rugby World Cup winners, and the talismanic captain is hoping to add one more win to that list when the teams face off at the Stade de France.
Asked if he would take personal satisfaction from knocking the All Blacks out of the tournament, Sexton admitted: “I haven’t thought once about personally what the game means. It’s all about the team and progressing in the competition.
“That’s all we’re thinking about, it’s not about anything personal. I’ve had some great battles against New Zealand over the years, with Ireland and the Lions. What you learn is every game is as tough as the last, no matter what the result.
“That’s what we’re preparing for. We’re preparing for the toughest game we have ever faced, and we are trying to put ourselves in the frame of mind that we are going to be ready for it.”
The veteran out-half will captain Ireland for the 30th time on Saturday, seeking his 26th victory as skipper. He is RWC 2023’s third top points scorer with 51 points, and has reached the knockout stages as Ireland’s record points scorer (1101), having eclipsed his former team-mate O’Gara (1083).
His experience of World Cup quarter-final defeats in the past varies, as he came on for the final 25 minutes against Wales in 2011, was injured for the 2015 loss to Argentina, and started the 46-14 reversal at the hands of New Zealand four years ago.
He does not feel those results mean Andy Farrell’s men have a big mental hurdle to climb on Saturday night, noting: “We have worked on our mental game for the last four years and put ourselves in different scenarios over the last four years to prepare for this.
Each quarter-final that we haven’t got through, or where we haven’t got through our pool, have all been different, and it’s a different group again.
“Each of those groups lost once. It wasn’t the same group losing quarter-final year after year. If it was club rugby it would probably be a bigger hurdle, but I don’t think we are carrying much baggage. It is a one-off game and we have got to prepare for now.”
Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier are the only survivors from that 2019 starting XV that are in the team for Saturday’s renewal of rivalries.
Notably, Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Sheehan and Caelan Doris have all made their debuts since then. That is the case too for replacements Ronan Kelleher, Joe McCarthy, Jack Crowley and Jimmy O’Brien, a potential World Cup debutant.
As much as Sexton and his team-mates feel they have pushed on over the last 18 months, putting together a 17-match winning streak to make history by winning a Test series in New Zealand and securing only their fourth ever Grand Slam, the All Blacks believe they too are an improved outfit.
They also feel they have a not-so-secret weapon in Joe Schmidt, Farrell’s predecessor in charge of Ireland. He deputised as coach for the first Test of the 2022 series – owing to positive Covid-19 tests for Ian Foster and his assistants – and was appointed as their attack coach last August.
Sexton had a close relationship with Schmidt during his time with Leinster and Ireland, and like team manager Mick Kearney said earlier in the week, he is looking forward to catching up with the 2014, 2015 and 2018 Six Nations title-winning coach after Saturday’s showdown.
“You can see evidence of Joe’s coaching through the (New Zealand) team. I think they’ve made big strides over the last 12 months. I know they have a different forwards coach (Jason Ryan) as well from when we were there,” acknowledged Sexton.
“So they’ve made big strides. We know that it’s very much a different team we’re playing against. They’ve said it themselves, they’re a very different team.
“It’s a big challenge. Joe knows us well, we know him well, but Joe doesn’t get to make any tackles or run any lines at the weekend. We just have to worry about the players we’re playing against and not too much against him.
“The legacy he left on Irish Rugby is massive. His record here (with Ireland) is outstanding and we’ll look forward to having a beer with him after the game.”