Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Sexton kicks in the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
# Raise The Roof
Second test countdown - 'We’ll see whether we’ve got the stomach for the pressure'
Ireland face New Zealand tomorrow needing a win to stay alive in the test series.

JOHNNY SEXTON HEARD a knock on the door.

Declan Kidney was the person who wanted to see him.

This was 2011, Dunedin. He had started that World Cup as Ireland’s starting out-half but ended it on the bench, the hotel where Ireland are staying now, the scene of his demotion.

“I didn’t recognise the name of this hotel, was thinking about it all week, and then we arrived and it was, “Ah, now I remember it!” I remember Deccie coming into my room, sitting on the bed opposite me and dropping me. So yeah, it’s amazing the memories that come back,” Sexton said yesterday before turning to the person who asked him if he’d been here before. “Thanks for bringing it up!”

They’d only just opened the Forsyth Barr stadium that year, in time for the World Cup. The architects insisted on building a roof; the Irish fans then did their best to raise it.

“It was an incredible game,” says Sexton of Ireland’s date with Italy in that tournament. “I don’t know the capacity of the stadium but it was 90 per cent Irish and it was a party atmosphere. It was a great occasion to be part of. I would have preferred to have been starting but I was able to soak it up. Incredible stadium.”

The All Blacks like it here too, having won seven games out of seven since it was opened. If Eden Park is their spiritual home, this town – where they have won 40 out of 46 games – is a close second.

Yet it is here that Ireland are seeking to make history tomorrow, having failed to ever win against the All Blacks in New Zealand.  “If you can win the second Test, the momentum always swings to you and you feel like you’ve got the ascendancy,” said Sexton.

Soft words, easily spoken. Actions are always harder, though.

“We were happy with some of the things we did last week,” said Sexton of Ireland’s 42-19 defeat, “but they are pretty ruthless, aren’t they? So clinical if you give them a glimmer, whether it’s on transition or your mistakes, they have got individuals that can hurt you. If you miss a tackle, individuals that can hurt you.

team-huddle-during-the-captains-run Ireland team huddle in the Captain's Run.

“We found out the hard way last Saturday. I think it was very similar to the Maori game, we did a lot of things well and then suddenly you turn over ball and you’re under your posts. It was very similar in the fact that the first 30 (minutes), it was sort of parity and then a couple of quick fire tries and suddenly you are chasing the game.

“But the lads did well to come back in the second-half and really stick at it. Probably should have got a bit more reward from that.”

If nothing else this shows they have resilience, something their head coach, Andy Farrell, insists they have worked on with their performance coach, Gary Keegan – the guru who also assisted the Dublin Gaelic football side under Jim Gavin and was the original genius behind the Irish boxing programme’s rise.

“I honestly think that the mental side of the game is where we can make the most improvement because the occasion is a big one within in itself,” says Farrell.

It’s often an overlooked factor, the emotional aspect of pro sport, especially in a game as complex as rugby where so much is happening at any given moment.

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Beyond the strategies and tactics, though, are 30 humans, some of whom have iron-clad belief systems, others who are prone to mistakes under pressure.

“The opposition’s standard is obviously of a very high quality and you have to get your emotional level to be able to survive, never mind attack the game,” said Farrell.

“So to be able to go from an emotional state and be nice and accurate as far as your physicality is concerned you’ve got to then be back down to as cool as ice, and in some of those bits we wasn’t.

“For example, you steal a ball and then somebody has a rush of blood and tries to kick the ball away straightaway and all of a sudden the ball is back in their hands.

“The game, for how ferocious it can be and how quick it can be at times, there’s not that much time to think. The ones with the coolest heads are the ones who are most accurate and the one who preserve the most energy at the same time.”

Four years ago in Melbourne, he was an assistant yet he showed his officer class that week when Ireland were in a similar scenario, one-nil down in a three-match series, fully aware that a second defeat would turn the tour into a failure.

This was when he delivered a speech which turned out to be a de-facto job interview to replace outgoing head coach, Joe Schmidt. “Let’s see what the old Irish ticker is made of,” he said.

It was a deliberate call to arms, the sound of an Englishman’s voice challenging that Irish team to show heart. Here in Dunedin, he delivered a similar message but opted for a different body part. “We’ll see whether we’ve got the stomach for the pressure,” he said. Twenty-four hours from now, we’ll find out.

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