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'Guys were very emotional at the last World Cup after winning a pool game'

Ireland believe they’re mentally in a better place to make history against the All Blacks on Saturday.

THE FINAL POOL game against France at the 2015 World Cup took a major toll on Ireland in more ways than one.

There were the injuries, of course, with Paul O’Connell’s hamstring tearing off the bone and Peter O’Mahony’s ACL rupturing, while Johnny Sexton took a battering that led to him being ruled out with an adductor injury. Those issues added to the prior loss of Jared Payne to a fractured foot.

Then there was Sean O’Brien’s flash of frustration in striking Pascal Papé that led to a suspension that ensured he, like the injured players, missed the quarter-final against Argentina a week later.

ian-madigan-celebrates-after-the-game Ireland celebrated their 2015 win over France emotionally. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

But there was also the emotional toll of that 24-9 win over France. It was a game that had been built up from a long, long way out and a victory that was greeted with emotional celebrations and some tears of joy.

Contrast that scene in Cardiff with the one last Saturday night in Fukuoka, when Ireland hammered Samoa despite playing most of the game with 14 men. Schmidt removed all his key players early in the game and there wasn’t much in the way of celebrations at the final whistle.

That relative calm is one of the reasons Ireland believe they are in a good place to finally break the glass ceiling in a World Cup quarter-final, even if it is against the number one team in the world and the defending back-to-back champions, New Zealand.

“The big difference is we finished the pool and you saw the difference in celebration between this World Cup and the last one,” says out-half Johnny Sexton.

“There were guys very emotional at the last World Cup after winning a pool game, whereas I think we’re just business as usual.

“This is always where we wanted to get to, we feel that this is the little bit of history we can make, getting Ireland into its first-ever semi-final and then we can reevaluate after that. This is where we wanted to be.

“New Zealand or South Africa, for us it was much the same. They both pose different challenges but they’re both world-class teams.”

Sexton explains that Ireland didn’t even need to actively speak about not investing too much emotion into the closing stages of their pool campaign at this World Cup, given how stark the lesson was in 2015.

jamie-heaslip-celebrates-after-the-game Ireland put a huge effort into beating France in 2015. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland were flat when it came to the Argentina quarter-final four years ago, while Schmidt’s players feel they’re building to the perfect place for the All Blacks clash on Saturday in Tokyo Stadium.

“I suppose the French game was just the big game in that pool and it was the last game and then with the atmosphere and the stadium we were in, it was almost like a comedown for the Argentina game,” says Sexton.

“Whereas now, it’s getting right back up and I’m sure that the atmosphere is going to be there again.

“The Irish, we’ve just been talking how unbelievable the Irish support has been in terms of every stadium, every fixture, you know, even the Russia game where most people wanted to come for Samoa and the quarter-final, the Russia game was packed with Irish people as well.

“So it’s something that we’re well aware of and we want to give those Irish fans something to remember.”

Having missed the 2015 quarter-final through injury and come off the bench in the 2011 defeat to Wales at this stage, Sexton is naturally excited to be fit and firing to steer the Ireland ship on Saturday at Tokyo Stadium. 

“At the start of the week [in 2015], I remember getting a scan and the scan said it was relatively clear and you kind of bluff yourself into thinking, ‘This is OK,’” recalls Sexton.

“I remember doing the captain’s run, I think it was two days before the game, and it just wasn’t right. I went for another scan and the injury showed up. I was doing everything possible to try and get on the pitch. It just wasn’t to be.”

johnny-sexton Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton will be central if Ireland are to upset the odds and make history this weekend, with his longstanding partnership with Conor Murray set to be as influential as ever.

And this, at the age of 34, is the biggest game of Sexton’s career.

“It’s the biggest,” confirms Sexton, “and in that regard then, it is the most exciting.

“We said it after Samoa, we said, ‘Look lads, no matter who we play, this is the biggest game of our lives.’

“You feel it straight away. You feel it when you wake up this morning and your mind just goes straight to the game. So sleep will probably be a challenge this week.

“But yeah, it’s where you want to be as a kid watching. I think my first memory of watching Ireland in the [1995] World Cup was against New Zealand. I think I was in Bective.

“It’s where you want to be and it’s where you want to challenge yourself. It’s where we can create something a little bit special back in the country.

“I’m sure the country will go mad on Saturday morning, so I can’t wait for it.”

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