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'To win a Test series would be really special' - Sexton on South Africa tour

Ireland face three demanding clashes with the Springboks in June.

THE PRO12 MAY be demanding most Irish players’ attention right now, but with Ireland’s first Test against South Africa just over six weeks away, we can be certain that many of them are already having thoughts of what lies ahead in June.

Joe Schmidt’s men kick off their three-Test series against the Springboks in Cape Town on 11 June, before travelling to Johannesburg for the second clash at altitude and then finishing the challenge in Port Elizabeth.

Jared Payne celebrates his try with Andrew Trimble and Jonathan Sexton Sexton will be Ireland's key man again in June. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After a disappointing Six Nations campaign in which they finished third, it would be a major achievement for Ireland to earn a first-ever win against the Boks on South African soil, but perhaps opportunity knocks.

The hosts have only recently appointed a new head coach in Allister Coetzee, while it remains unclear who their captain will be in June. Several new faces are expected in the South African squad and then there is the much-publicised issue of the quota.

An agreement between the South African government and the nation’s rugby union states that at least half of the Springboks’ squad must be made up by non-white players in time for the 2019 World Cup.

It remains to be seen how soon Coetzee moves towards that target, but it once again stresses just how demanding the South African national team job is.

Nonetheless, the former Stormers head coach has an array of world-class talent to work with for June, even taking into account the retirements of the likes of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger, as well as the possible absentees on Top 14 duty.

Ireland began their preparations for the tour when a 44-man squad assembled in Enfield for an overnight camp on 17 and 18 April, with Schmidt introducing the players to Andy Farrell.

“We were down in camp a couple of weeks ago and are all geared up towards South Africa,” says Ireland out-half Johnny Sexton. “We had a little bit of a review of the Six Nations.

“South Africa are obviously going to be a few players down with the Top 14 moving on into June, if teams like Montpellier get there especially. They have a quite a few [South African] guys who potentially could feature for them. We just have to focus on ourselves.

Jonathan Sexton Johnny Sexton is a Topaz ambassador. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“There is a lot going on there with the quota and them saying they are not going to stick to the quota. I’m sure there is going to be a lot of media spotlight on the tour but we just have to focus on ourselves and getting ourselves right.

“One thing we take from the Six Nations is that if we get ourselves right, we have got a chance. If we are in any way off, just 5%, we are going to get beaten. That is the nature of the game and the competitiveness of international rugby.

“Everything will be geared up towards getting ourselves in the best state physically, especially because we are going to be playing at altitude in one of the Tests.”

The fact that Ireland haven’t won in South Africa before provides Schmidt’s men with a clear and obvious target for this tour, though you suspect that the Kiwi might be eyeing the possibility of sneaking a series success as Coetzee finds his feet in Test rugby.

Sexton, however, says that Ireland will continue to operate under their policy of intent focus on preparation, rather than proclaiming any grand objectives.

Honestly, we didn’t set a target,” says Sexton of the Enfield camp. “We know that there’s history at stake and to win a game would make history, to win a Test series would be something really special.

“We don’t actually sit down and say what we want to do. It’s all behaviours, turning up day to day, doing everything right and then hoping that translates into a Saturday performance. If that happens then we have got a good chance.

“Playing South Africa in South Africa, there’s a reason why they don’t get beaten there too often. Probably New Zealand is the only country that ever sort of wins there regularly. All the other nations wouldn’t have too many wins. It’s going to be really tough, but it’s a great challenge for us.”

Joe Schmidt Schmidt will be eyeing wins in South Africa. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This has been a long, hard season for professional rugby players in Europe already, given that it began with a World Cup.

The South Africans, of course, have had an off-season and pre-season in the meantime and therefore would appear to be at a physical advantage.

Ireland’s most recent post-World Cup tour saw them come extremely close to making history with a win in the second Test against New Zealand in 2012, before Declan Kidney’s side were annihilated 60-0 in the final game.

It’s put to Sexton that that hammering came partly due to fatigue, but the out-half feels it was down to players mentally tuning out.

“I think what happened on that tour was there was a drop-off after the second game, because we came so close,” says Sexton.

Then we probably… this might sound stupid, but they lost [Dan] Carter and [Richie] McCaw for the third test, and we probably thought that ‘we have a great chance here’.

“Guys took their foot off the gas a little bit, and if you do that against New Zealand you quickly find out that Aaron Cruden and Sam Cane aren’t actually far behind those two. We learnt harsh lessons on that tour, but I don’t think the same thing will happen on this tour.

“I think we’re too well coached and managed that guys would ever take anything for granted in the environment. When we went to Argentina [in 2014] with a lot of guys injured, look how well we performed and how important it was for us to wear the jersey.

“I think we’ve come a long way since that [New Zealand] tour, and that tour was very important for a lot of other guys in that team. It was a big motivating factor for us going forward.” 

Topaz announced the return of ‘Cash for Clubs’, a community initiative which offers clubs of all types across Ireland the chance to win up to €250,000 in cash prizes. On hand to kick off the campaign was Topaz ambassador Johnny Sexton, who has joined Ireland’s leading fuel and convenience retailer in encouraging clubs across the country to sign up and get involved.

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Murray Kinsella

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