Ireland five-eighth Johnny Sexton cut a lonely figure on Friday as he stalked around an empty Tokyo Stadium ahead of their World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand, but he was not going to change the habit of a lifetime.
Sexton was the only player to turn up to the stadium for the side’s official “captain’s run” after the team had held a training session earlier in the day, with the 34-year-old having to practice with kicking and skills coach Richie Murphy.
“I didn’t want to break routine before a big game and not kick in the stadium before the game,” Sexton told reporters at the stadium.
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“I wasn’t going to start anything new now. So I just wanted to get my preparation going as usual.
“I had the bus to myself. I had the pitch to myself, which was a bit strange, but I can chill out on the bus on the way back.”
Murphy said the coaching staff had been happy with their run on Friday morning and left it up to the individual players as to whether they made the long journey out to western Tokyo for a final walk through.
Ireland have never advanced to the semi-finals at the World Cup, having lost six quarter-finals, and while they have beaten the All Blacks in two of their three previous matches, are not expected to break that curse on Saturday.
Forced to contemplate the prospect that the All Blacks could crash out of the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, tension and nerves in New Zealand bubble to the surface. #RWC2019 #NZLvIRE https://t.co/040MvVWRTT
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 19, 2019
Sexton, however, said the entire team had been focused on a potential quarter-final showdown with either the All Blacks or Springboks for a long time and they were quietly confident they could advance.
“We look forward to getting out there on the big stage and showing what we can do against a team that has not lost a game for two World Cups,” he said.
“It will be an enormous challenge and one we’re excited about and eager to make the people at home really proud.”
While it could be the last match for coach Joe Schmidt, who is stepping down after the World Cup, Sexton said he hoped it would not be the last time he plays with halfback Conor Murray.
The pair will set an Irish record with their 56th test together, eclipsing the 55 tests that Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara played together between 2000-2015.
“It has been a pleasure to play alongside him,” Sexton said.
“I hope we get many more together but at the end of the World Cup you guys (the media) will probably start to come for our heads because we will be too old and the next batch has to come through.
“I can see it already, but I hope we have a few more years together.”
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