Johnny Sexton hits out at 'strange' negativity over Ireland's World Cup campaign
Johnny Sexton has hit out at what he has perceived to be negativity surrounding Ireland at the World Cup as he dismissed any comparisons that were made with the ill-fated 2007 campaign.
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Ireland will depart Fukuoka for Tokyo today as they ramp-up preparations for Saturday's quarter-final showdown with the All Blacks.
As things stand, Joe Schmidt currently has a fully fit squad of 31 players to choose from, but that number could drop to 30 depending on the outcome of Bundee Aki's disciplinary hearing later today (11.30am Irish time).
Ireland were clearly stung by criticism after they were beaten by Japan earlier in the tournament and while the hosts' stunning win over Scotland put that result into perspective, Schmidt's side should still have been good enough to beat the Brave Blossoms.
However, Sexton believes that the level of criticism that was aimed at his side was over-the-top as he pointed to the fact that Ireland are in a good place going into what is a massive week.
"Obviously we've been building pretty well, apart from that poor 60 minutes against Japan everything else has pretty much gone to plan," Sexton insisted.
"There's been some negativity around us and we'd feel that's been pretty strange.
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"But we're really confident in how we're building. We'd like to be playing a bit better in some regards at times, but hopefully we can put that performance out there on Saturday.
"It (negativity) is not a talking point. It's just something that we get a sense of.
"You get texts saying, 'Keep the head up, we're still behind you' and you get a feeling that there are some things out there that aren't great. Our media officer gives us the lowdown before we come in here (press conference) what to expect.
"We know things weren't great but it's funny some people trying to compare things to '07 when they just scraped past Namibia and we have just beaten Russia 35-0.
"How there can be comparisons there, I'm not quite sure, and in totally different conditions.
"Look, we are where we are, we're exactly where we want to be in terms of a quarter-final and now we're going to do everything we can for this week to put our best selves out there and hopefully that can get us the right result.
"We know we can play to our potential and still not get it, so we've got to make sure we do our part and really go for it.
"We’re very self-critical, we’re critical of ourselves in terms of our performances and obviously after the Japan game we would have liked to have done things differently. But we kind of knew how good a team Japan were. We always knew that that could happen if we didn’t play well – and it did happen. I’m sure they’ll go on and really trouble South Africa now."
Having previously stated that the defeat to Japan could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, Sexton remains hopeful that Ireland have already suffered their dip in form rather than doing so in the quarter-final.
Ireland have never reached a World Cup semi-final, but confidence appears to be high within the squad that they can break that glass ceiling this time around.
"I'm hoping that having lost a pool game that we've got that quarter-final performance out of our system that we've had in other tournaments,” Sexton continued.
"The way we played against Japan was probably very similar to the way we played against Wales and Argentina in the last two tournaments.
"The difference now is we're not favourites going into this quarter-final whereas we were in the last two.
"So we're building nicely, we haven't hit our best performance yet and we need to get close to that to get the right result on Saturday."
Ireland have already beaten New Zealand twice in this World Cup cycle, including last November, which in theory at least should lessen the fear factor about what lies ahead against the three-in-a-row chasing defending champions.
"We know they're the best team in the world and we've got to play our best to get there," Sexton added.
"We can take a little bit of confidence from the fact that we have got that monkey off our back and we've done it a couple of times, which gives us that belief.
"But this is a quarter-final of a World Cup and things are different. Even if we hadn't beaten them, anything can happen in a quarter-final.
"We've seen that over the years even with the All Blacks, so we're looking forward to it. We've got to concentrate on getting the best version of the Irish team out there and we'll see if that's good enough."
Belfast Telegraph Digital