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Tony Ward: Sensational Johnny Sexton can sparkle in his biggest ever game

 

On target: Johnny Sexton at Ireland's kicking session at Tokyo Stadium yesterday
On target: Johnny Sexton at Ireland's kicking session at Tokyo Stadium yesterday

By Tony Ward

Jonathan Sexton, who has been outstanding in his measured playing time, has expressed the view that this Ireland versus New Zealand World Cup quarter-final is the biggest game of his career.

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It is a sentiment I fully endorse.

I saw it suggested by a former international in midweek that, given where both of today's combatants stand in terms of World Cup winning aspiration, "there is no pressure on them (Ireland)".

On the contrary, the pressure on this Irish squad, in what could prove the final match of Joe Schmidt's tenure, is every bit as intense. It heartens me no end to see our most influential player Sexton front up to the reality and magnitude of what now lies ahead.

Aside from the opening match against the Scots, we haven't hit our straps in this campaign. Beating the Samoans in the manner we did - on the scoreboard at least - has heightened public expectation.

As we all know only too well, when we are good we can be very, very good, but when we are bad and start somewhat off the pace we can lose our way entirely.

Therein lies the challenge. To hit the ground running but to maintain discipline under pressure.

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Apparently the forecast in the Tokyo area is for significant rainfall. In the context of this particular head to head it is no bad thing for the team in green.

What still makes this New Zealand team the best in world rugby (and you can ignore the World Rugby rankings) is its ability and willingness to attack from anywhere - and I mean anywhere - with a potency no other team can match.

In a blink of the eye against the Springboks in the opening Pool B match, they turned the game on its head with a typical All Black combination. Two quick tries - 17-3, match over.

Andy Farrell was quoted as saying: "We've got to take every point-scoring opportunity."

While I get that, I will be more than a little surprised if Sexton deviates from going for the corner, rather than for the posts, from penalty-kicking opportunities on offer. Here, again, the elements will dictate so much.

Thankfully, there have been few, if any, negatives leaking out of the Irish camp ahead of kick-off. That's as it should be.

Yes, it is a six-day turnaround since Fukuoka, but give me that run-out against the Samoans ahead of the near two-week New Zealand break anytime.

No amount of training - no matter how good the quality - equates with the real thing.

The Samoan performance was far from blemish-free, but in terms of restoring confidence it was a massive step in the right direction.

The Japanese have been a breath of fresh air with their adventurous play in these claustrophobic times at this World Cup.

By contrast, Ireland are what we are, and where we are, because of what we do. Much like the 'put 'em under pressure' football of the Jack Charlton era, the Schmidt equivalent is our ability to keep ball when at our best and utterly frustrate the opposition.

And that includes the All Blacks, too. As in Chicago 2016 and Dublin last November.

It ain't pretty, but today is not about aesthetics. It's about the full-court press we apply as effectively as any.

When carried out with the right tempo, whereby we dictate the pace of the game, it frustrates the opposition, irrespective of its quality. It is about planting seeds of doubt early and then capitalising on that to the maximum of our collective ability. Needless to say discipline is essential - but that cuts both ways.

I dared to voice a pre-tournament opinion - one I still hold as kick-off beckons - that the quarter-final, whether Springboks or All Blacks, would prove once again a hurdle too high.

If New Zealand play to their best then, no matter how well Ireland perform, they will win. But I've been around the rugby block often enough to appreciate that, on days and occasions like this, strange things can happen. Can we win today and turn conventional history on its head? Yes, and that ability is well proven.

This has the potential to be our greatest day. I differ with the World Player of the Year on certain issues, not least that of leadership. But, in terms of moral and physical courage, he is a class apart.

I expect the nation to grind to a halt for a couple of hours at least and I am no different than any other totally-committed Irishman in wanting this to be our greatest ever day.

Impossible, no. Improbable, yes.

I know I don't need to peddle the heart-versus-head line. Either way, expect our biggest performance of this tournament to date, but New Zealand to scrape it.

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