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6 Nations

‘In Terms Of Testing Ourselves, It’s Huge’ – Sexton



When South Africa last visited these shores as reigning Rugby World Cup champions, Jonathan Sexton’s international career was in its infancy. It was November 2009 and he had only just made his Ireland debut.

Taking the reins at out-half from Ronan O’Gara, Sexton kicked all 15 points in only his second Test appearance as the home side, fresh from that year’s historic Grand Slam success, defeated the Springboks at Croke Park.

Saturday will mark the current Ireland captain’s sixth time to play South Africa on home soil, the last two occasions taking his win tally to three thanks to those convincing victories from 2014 (29-15) and 2017 (38-3).

It is always a hugely physical battle coming up against the ‘Boks – Sexton played out the 2009 game with two broken fingers – but with plenty of pace in their selected back-line, he knows they are much more than the power game they are famed for.

“The South African DNA is unbelievably strong up front, strong set piece, they base the majority of their game off that. Good kicking game, good in the air,” highlighted Sexton, who is set to captain his country for the 21st time in the Bank of Ireland Nations Series opener.

“But they’re also not afraid to play when it’s on, and they’re also not afraid to go wide-wide, and they’ve picked a pretty exciting back-line.

“A back-line that they probably haven’t had the luxury of picking so far with injuries and suspensions and stuff. To bring (Cheslin) Kolbe back, and (Kurt-Lee) Arendse on the right wing, they’re almost like duplicates of each other so we’ve got double threats there.

“They’ve got top quality players across the park. They build their game on strong set piece, strong kicking game, pressure. They’re pretty well rounded.”

Damian Willemse, who won the BKT United Rugby Championship with the DHL Stormers last season, will be Sexton’s opposite number this weekend. The versatile 24-year-old start at out-half, alongside the Cell C Sharks’ Jaden Hendrikse.

The Ireland skipper rates Willemse highly, acknowledging: “He’s a very, very good player. I suppose he’s only played a couple of games at 10 for South Africa. He’s unpredictable, he’s got fantastic footwork, he’s got a good kicking game, strong and fast obviously.

“Some traits you wouldn’t normally associate with a 10, but he’s an excellent player. We’re going to have to be ready to play but we expected him to be named at 10. We’ve done a little bit of analysis on him and will do some more.”

Despite narrowly missing out on the Rugby Championship title to New Zealand, Jacques Nienaber’s men took plenty of encouragement from their biggest win over New Zealand since 1928 and their first Test victory in Australia since 2013.

This weekend will see them come up against some of the British & Irish Lions players they defeated to win the 2021 Covid-19-impacted Series, including Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan who started all three Tests.

While also encouraged by the form of the South African sides in the URC and their eagerly-awaited debuts in the Heineken Champions Cup, Nienaber is bracing his squad for a supercharged clash with an Ireland team that ‘can be a force to be reckoned with in Dublin’.

“We last faced Ireland on their home patch in 2017 and they beat us 38-3 in that match, and they also beat us here 29-15 in 2014 and they will draw confidence from that,” said the former Munster defence coach.

“Similarly to us, they will also view this as a vital match with an eye on next year’s Rugby World Cup in France where we will cross paths in the pool stages.

“Obviously we are a long way out from the World Cup, but we have a limited number of games left before the competition. The preparation doesn’t get better than playing a side we will face in the World Cup and the number one side in the world.

“This match is important for us for many reasons, one of which is to test our player combinations with the World Cup less than a year away.”

For Sexton, the opening Test of the Bank of Ireland Nations Series is a chance for Ireland to build on what they achieved during the summer and to start the new international season on a strong footing.

“It’s what we need. We need another big test and to find out where we’re at. Obviously we have to give South Africa the respect that they absolutely deserve. They’re the best team in the world in terms of they’re world champions,” he added.

They’re a top class team. They’ve won the World Cup, beat the Lions, had some big results over the last few years. So in terms of testing ourselves, it’s huge.

How we can get a result? We have to bring our game and make sure we do it even better. Because when you have a couple of results like we did during the summer, teams start to properly look at you and it’s like, ‘how are we going to mess up this Ireland team?’

“How are we going to combat this? We’ve got to do it better and we’ve got to evolve a little bit and make sure that we bring something new to the table.”

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography

6 Nations

Henshaw: Our Defence Was Good, But We Can Go Up Another Level



Entering match week four of the Rugby World Cup, Robbie Henshaw is feeling fully charged and refreshed after a ‘nice and chilled’ few days in Paris during the Ireland’s squad down time.

The picture has changed in Pool B since Ireland’s 13-10 win over reigning champions South Africa. The Springboks are top of the table on 15 points following their 49-18 defeat of Tonga, with Scotland, as expected, coming right back into contention with back-to-back bonus point victories.

Unbeaten Ireland still have their destiny very much in their own hands, sitting on 14 points with the Scots on 10, but it does mean that Saturday night’s Celtic derby at the Stade de France is effectively a shootout for the quarter-finals.

Ireland have dominated this fixture in recent seasons with eight straight wins, and have won twelve of the last 13 meetings. However, you write off a Scottish team at your peril, and Henshaw knows exactly the type of challenge they will pose.

“Every time we play Scotland we know they’re going to come for us,” he said, speaking at the team base in Tours. “Now we can see what it means to them and what they want to chase, and what we want to chase as well in terms of getting those four (pool) wins.

“They’re going to come and have a go like they always do, through Finn Russell and getting the ball to the width. They’ll have a plan and we’ll just need to make sure we’re rock solid and we attack it.”

Henshaw got another half-an-hour of game-time under his belt against South Africa, coming on during Garry Ringrose’s first half HIA and then as a permanent replacement just past the hour mark.

The Athlone man has played in four of Ireland’s last five matches, including starts against Italy and Samoa in the lead up to the World Cup. If he gets an opportunity to feature this weekend, he readily accepts that he has to make the most of it given the form of the other centres.

Bundee (Aki) has been brilliant. His body is in great shape, he is flying fit, as has Garry. The lads’ performances have been consistent.

“Bundee has been flying in terms of getting tries. He’s been letting us know he’s near the top of the try scorers’ list (with four tries so far), which we’ve been having a laugh about!

“They’ve been outstanding. Whenever I get a chance to come in, it’s making sure I put my best foot forward and whenever I come off the bench, put in a good performance.”

As well as Henshaw, Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey, who is in buoyant mood after the birth of his second son, is pressing to be involved and make his World Cup debut, as is the versatile Jimmy O’Brien, who played at centre against the ‘Boks last November.

Ireland’s strength in depth in midfield – and clean bill of health – is a huge asset at this stage of the tournament, especially if the starting pair for Saturday continue to produce the sort of form that Aki and Ringrose have across the opening three rounds.

“There’s always in the past – Six Nations, Novembers – there’s always been one of us (centres) in or out due to injury or whatever,” acknowledged Henshaw, who scored his eighth Test try against Scotland in March 2021.

“Hopefully we can keep us all fit. But the quality we have, we’ve great strength in depth in those positions, even the likes of ‘Earlsie’ (Keith Earls) being able to come in at 13 and Jimmy, the depth we have here is key for playing in a World Cup because anything can happen.”

The 30-year-old Leinster star admitted it was ‘all hands on deck’ when he was initially sprung from the bench against South Africa. It was his chop tackle on Pieter-Steph du Toit that allowed James Lowe to get in for a turnover at a crucial stage.

Keeping Jacques Nienaber’s men to just one try – and eight points in all – was a huge factor in the overall outcome. That was also the case when Ireland beat Scotland in the 2022 and 2023 Six Nations, winning 26-5 in Dublin and 22-7 in Edinburgh respectively.

As things stand, Ireland have the third best defensive record across the pools, conceding 32 points so far compared to host nation France’s 25 and England’s 22. Maintaining those standards will be vital against Scotland in such a high-stakes encounter.

“We had a good look at what we did against South Africa. I think our defence, we showed some great pictures in defence but we know we can go (up) another level,” insisted Henshaw.

“Definitely in attack, we took some steps forward but we left some opportunities out there as well. Looking at everything from our set-piece lineout, how can we get better there? In the first few moments we missed a few lineouts and that let South Africa off the hook a bit.

“Definitely we’ll break down bits like that and make sure we learn from it and we grow.”

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography

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6 Nations

Sexton ‘Very Proud’ Of Record, But Win Was More Important



Head coach Andy Farrell said it was ‘so fitting’ that Jonathan Sexton broke Ronan O’Gara’s record with a memorable try under the posts to become Ireland’s all-time top points scorer.

O’Gara (1083 points) leapfrogged David Humphreys (560) at the top of the scoring charts back in February 2006, and now the mantle has passed to another talismanic number 10. Sexton’s try and 11 points from the tee against Tonga took his career haul for Ireland to 1090.

Adding in his 2013 try for the British & Irish Lions against Australia, he has moved above Welsh legend Neil Jenkins into fourth place on the list of highest scorers in international rugby history.

Sexton claimed the Irish record in style with a cleverly-worked 37th-minute score that secured Ireland’s second bonus point of this Rugby World Cup. The rush of his team-mates to congratulate and engulf him behind the posts spoke volumes.

“I was just happy to score the try,” admitted the Ireland captain, modest as ever. “I think one of the lads said it to me (about breaking the record) under the posts. I actually thought I might have got it on the kick before.

Look, it’s something when you retire you can look back on and be very proud of. I think my little boy (Luca) will be over the moon. He was talking about it during the week.

“It probably means more to him! He’ll chase it down now, and so will the other 10s. It’s there to be broken now and I’m sure some young guys will be eyeing it up.

“I’m very proud to do it, but tonight it was more important getting the win and moving on to what is such a massive game (against South Africa) this coming week.”

Sexton has started France 2023 in impressive form despite his lack of recent game-time. He has racked up three tries and 40 points in all across the first two rounds, with only England’s George Ford (41) ahead of him.

The St. Mary’s College clubman has already topped his tallies from previous World Cups – 21 points in 2011, 31 points in 2015, and 26 points in 2019 – but is acutely aware that scoring opportunities will be much more difficult to come by against the Springboks.

Asked about the minutes he had gotten under his belt and the drive to get back to peak form, he admitted: “The proof will be next Saturday if I’m in good form. You’ve got to go do it in the games. There’s no point saying you’re feeling good or whatever.

“I just take it day by day, make sure I recover well, turn up to training Monday, Tuesday, and try and help put the plan in place to take on South Africa.

“They’ve hit a great vein of form and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us, but one that we are really excited about. Hopefully we’ll be ready for it.”

The fine-tuning of the Irish lineout had the desired effect with 21 wins and just two losses on their own throw. They also stole two of their opponents’ throws, while the scrum was also rock solid against a mammoth Tongan front row.

The pack put in a big collective shift, particularly Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier, who both played the full 80 minutes, and Peter O’Mahony (75) and Tadhg Furlong (71) were not far behind. Having been replaced, tighthead Furlong had to return to the pitch due to Finlay Bealham’s HIA.

Sexton played the first half in Nantes before Ross Byrne came on at out-half for his first World Cup appearance. The Ireland skipper praised the forwards for ensuring that ‘the lineout was excellent, the scrum as well’.

“We got a lot of territory and field position from the set piece. The forwards laid the platform and we got a couple of nice tries in both halves off first or second phase. Very pleased with that.”

It has been a real positive to see the Irish attack put away a good chunk of their chances, whether it is through Mack Hansen’s brilliant sidestep and burst of pace, or that lung-busting support run from Beirne that saw him score right at the death against Romania.

Bundee Aki (4 tries), Beirne and Sexton (3 each) have been regular try scorers, with the latter saying: “We’ve trained incredibly hard all summer, so we’re fit enough and able to get ourselves into positions to score tries and to put the opposition under pressure.

“We’ve done that well at times over the first two weeks. There was plenty of stuff that we’ll look back on early in the game where we’re going to need to be more accurate and clinical next week.”

Meanwhile, Farrell (pictured above with Tonga’s Chris Boyd) was pleased with how his side turned their pressure into points on a humid night. They went past the half-century mark with four tries during the closing 22 minutes.

They also got four more World Cup debutants (Byrne, Bealham, Ryan Baird and Craig Casey) on the pitch, and Dave Kilcoyne and Robbie Henshaw both returned from injury.

Farrell says they are ‘building nicely’ on the back of their eight-try display in Nantes, benefitting from ‘getting a little bit of continuity, getting more game-time, getting the job done and getting people off at the right time’.

He was delighted to see Sexton add another milestone achievement to his collection. Apart from his scoring prowess, he says the thing that stands out about his captain is ‘how he makes people feel and how he leads the team, and he’s one of the best in the world at that’.

Speaking about the try which saw the Dubliner break O’Gara’s longstanding record, the Wigan man commented: “He’d nine points and equalled the record before he scored the try, hadn’t he? You just knew when we got held up, and we were set to play that play. It’s something that we’d obviously practised during the week.

“He knows which ones to follow! He followed Conor (Murray) really well, and it’s so fitting that he broke the record with a try like that.

“The record’s fantastic but he’d say that’s his job. But it takes some doing. To us, as a leader and as a player, he’s a lot more than a points-scoring machine.

“How he prepares his team and gets them up for absolutely every game selflessly is more important to, I would think, him and certainly to us.”

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography

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6 Nations

‘We’ve Plenty Of Areas To Improve’ – O’Mahony



In winning their Pool B opener 82-8 against Romania, Ireland became the first team to score over 80 points in a Rugby World Cup match since Wales did so against Namibia back in 2011.

It was Ireland’s largest ever World Cup victory and the most points, tries (12), metres made (1091) and offloads (27) they have amassed in a match in the tournament’s history.

Captain Jonathan Sexton, who claimed a handful of records himself on the day, and Jack Crowley tallied up 11 conversions between them, setting a new Irish record in Test rugby.

However, there was some frustration with defensive lapses and attacks that broke down, especially off their usually reliable lineout platform. O’Mahony expects to see a return to form in that area this weekend.

“I think the main thing is to improve, get better,” he said, when asked about the team’s goals for round two. “There was plenty of stuff we were obviously happy with last week, but there was probably more that we weren’t happy with.

“Discipline certainly, penalties given away. We had Romania under pressure at times, but let them out easily with some quite silly discipline.

“I think some of our accuracy wasn’t where it could have been at times. Some fairly basic errors from ourselves that we would have expected much higher standards from.

“Set-piece wise, I think some of the moments where we got into their 22 where our lineout didn’t function. So, as I said, we’ve plenty of areas to improve on this week.”

Having ended last season with Six Nations and United Rugby Championship medals in his back pocket, O’Mahony has come into his third World Cup campaign in fine fettle despite missing some pre-season windows through injury.

The Romania game saw him score his fourth and fifth Test tries, adding to previous efforts against Samoa (2013), Russia (2019) and Italy (2022), as he made his first international start at openside flanker since the December 2020 win over Scotland.

In addition to his two tries and usual solidity in defence against the Oaks, the Corkman made a line break and more passes (13) than any other forward – during the World Cup’s opening round – except Italy’s Michele Lamaro (14).

Backing up for the Tonga clash as he reverts to his usual blindside berth, he admitted: “I certainly feel good. We’ve done a lot of training in heat and tough conditions. Everywhere we’ve gone, I said this last week, Portugal, Biarritz, being over here it’s been extremely hot and even back home was quite warm.

“A lot of that has stood to us fitness wise. It’s funny, we haven’t done a huge amount of out-and-out fitness work per se, kind of the old-school fitness term of just running and running. We’ve done loads and loads of rugby, and I think from a team perspective we’re quite rugby fit.

“I think last week will stand to people who played big chunks of that game or came off the bench, even who trained last week, the guys who put a big week in. It’s another big chunk in our fitness bank and (we’re) certainly feeling good.”

Tonga’s starting back row features the Scarlets’ Vaea Fifita, the former All Black, and Tanginoa Halaifonua and Sione Talitui fill the flanker roles. Big Bordeaux-based prop Ben Tameifuna leads the team as regular captain Sonatane Takulua starts on the bench.

O’Mahony’s recent Munster team-mate, Malakai Fekitoa, is a familiar face as is his centre partner Pita Ahki and full-back Salesi Piutau, who previously played for Connacht and Ulster respectively. Lock Leva Fifita left Connacht in the summer after two seasons.

With scrum half Augustine Pulu the fourth ex-All Black in Tonga’s starting XV, head coach Toutai Kefu commented: “(The former New Zealand players) have had a massive input already, both on and off the field.

“The biggest difference is off-the-field stuff – mindset, professionalism, a really good attitude, so that’s been refreshing and the younger players have observed that. They’ve raised the level of standard and expectation of all the players.

“We’re expecting to execute really well, execute our game-plan. Ireland are a very professional team, a very cohesive team. But we think there are some spots there we can identify and take advantage of.”

Having been a late addition to Ireland’s bench last week due to Robbie Henshaw’s injury, Connacht winger Mack Hansen will make his first World Cup start against Tonga. He has scored seven tries in 17 Tests, with six of them coming in the last year.

It has been a rapid rise for Hansen since his arrival in Galway just over two years ago, and his thorough professionalism on the pitch, mixed with his fun-loving personality off it, make him an ideal player to tour with, according to O’Mahony.

“Mack’s been a breath of fresh air. Obviously an incredible character. Good person, we talk about it a lot, the squad that we have and how important it is to fit in,” said the Munster captain, who was joined by Hansen at Thursday’s press conference.

Certainly you knew straight away he was a top man. As I said, a character but overall he’s an incredible athlete and one of the world’s best wingers at the moment, which is a great addition to have to the squad.

“The overriding factor is that he’s a good person and he’s seamlessly fitted into our squad like everyone else has. He’s great craic and you need characters like that. The beauty of the game of rugby is the different characters that you get, and we’d be lost without guys like Mack.

“Tours like this are made for being incredibly serious, obviously (it’s) our jobs and everything that goes with it. But the craic that fellas like this bring make it a great place to be.”

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography

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