Johnny Sexton says Ireland are preparing for “the toughest game we’ve ever faced” after the head coach, Andy Farrell, named an unchanged XV to take on New Zealand in Paris on Saturday night.
The grand slam champions are aiming to reach the Rugby World Cup semi-finals for the first time after seven previous last-eight defeats. Self-belief will not be an issue, however, given they have won five of their last eight matches against the All Blacks, including a historic 2-1 series victory in New Zealand last summer.
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The 38-year-old Sexton is set to retire after the tournament so the stakes could not be higher for the Leinster fly-half. He played in the drawn British & Irish Lions series against the All Blacks in 2017, and led Ireland to last summer’s series success, so he knows precisely what to expect.
“I’ve had some great battles with New Zealand over the years with Ireland and the Lions, and what you learn is that every game is as tough as the last,” Sexton said. “That’s what we’re preparing for: the toughest game we’ve ever faced, and we’re trying to put ourselves in the frame of mind that we’re going to be ready for it.”
Farrell is able to stick with the team that overpowered Scotland last Saturday despite fitness concerns over the wings, Mack Hansen and James Lowe. Hansen sustained a calf knock in the emphatic win over the Scots at the Stade de France, with Farrell saying on Wednesday: “He’s coming good, and everyone is confident he’s going to be fine for the game.”
The New Zealand-born Lowe, meanwhile, has recovered from an eye problem and is named in the back three alongside the full-back Hugo Keenan. The Leinster trio of Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong make up the front row, with Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson in the second row and Peter O’Mahony, Josh Van Der Flier and Caelan Doris forming an intimidating back row.
Ireland team to face New Zealand
15 H Keenan (Leinster)
14 M Hansen (Connacht)
13 G Ringrose (Leinster)
12 B Aki (Connacht)
11 J Lowe (Leinster)
10 J Sexton (Leinster, capt)
9 J Gibson-Park (Leinster)
1 A Porter (Leinster)
2 D Sheehan (Leinster)
3 T Furlong (Leinster)
4 T Beirne (Munster)
5 I Henderson (Ulster)
6 P O’Mahony (Munster)
7 J Van der Flier (Leinster)
8 C Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), F Bealham (Connacht), J McCarthy (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), J Crowley (Munster), J O’Brien (Leinster).
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Sexton is partnered by Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum-half, with the in-form Bundee Aki renewing his midfield partnership with Garry Ringrose. Joe McCarthy and Jimmy O’Brien have been added to the replacements while James Ryan, the Leinster lock, drops out of the 23.
“It’s the same mood,” Farrell said of reaching the knockouts, and before the meeting with Joe Schmidt, the former Ireland head coach who is now part of the All Blacks’ coaching team. “It’s the big-boy stuff, the business end of the competition … the experiences we’ve put ourselves under in the last three or four years were for moments like this.
“We’ve got a very experienced group … learning to deal with weeks like last week and this week is something we’ve got pretty good at.”
“We’ve worked on our mental game for the last four years,” said Sexton. “We’ve put ourselves in different scenarios to prepare for this … I don’t think we’re carrying much baggage. It’s a one-off game and we’ve got to prepare for it now.”