Johnny Sexton: Ireland will need their ‘best performance of the season’ to get past England

Johnny Sexton hopes Ireland can end their Six Nations campaign on a high
©INPHO/Billy Stickland

After overcoming Scotland in a close game at Murrayfield last weekend, Andy Farrell’s Ireland now journey back home to the Aviva Stadium to host an unpredictable England.

For the Irish, they will be focused on ending a run that has seen them lose their last four games against Eddie Jones’ side as they aim to conclude the Six Nations in a positive fashion.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton this week reflected on those past defeats and said a first-rate performance is needed if they are to overcome England.

He said: “We felt in a few games that they really dominated physically. I think we massively stepped up in that last game against them [during the Autumn Nations Cup].

“I don’t think you could say that we were outmuscled, but we lacked the ruthless streak, and we didn’t take some of the chances that we created.

“Each game has been different. They’re a top-quality team so you’re going to have to play really well to get a result against them. For us, we’re going to have to pull out our best performance of the season, but that’s a great challenge, isn’t it?

“We feel that we can do it. We feel that we’ve been showing it in glimpses. I keep saying that every week. We’re showing some good things and we’re just paying the price for some lapses at the moment, and we need to make sure that we can just be better.

“If we can put in our best performance of the season, we’ll test them.”

England will be looking to put together back-to-back victories to salvage their campaign after an impressive 23-20 win over pre-tournament favourites France last time out.

Sexton has kept a close eye on England’s recent matches and admitted he is respectful of the quality in Jones’ squad but believes that lessons learned from past Irish defeats will put his side in good stead.

He said: “[England vs France] was a great game to watch. They will be very happy with their performance and their win.

“We know that they’re a top-quality side and in Test match rugby. I know the Wales game ended up getting away from them, but when it comes down to the last 10 minutes and it’s all level, it was the same against Scotland, a one-score game.

“They’re not far off the team that obviously got to a World Cup final and that won the championship last year. We haven’t managed to get a win over them in the last number of times, but hopefully we’ve learned some lessons along the way and hopefully we can put in a better performance on Saturday against them.”

It will be a fond farewell for CJ Stander as he pulls on the Irish shirt for the final time on Saturday after taking his teammates by surprise by announcing his retirement earlier this week.

The flanker is set to round off his international career with his 51st cap and his retirement could offer an extra incentive for Farrell’s charges.

Sexton said: “I think that’s why he [Stander] wanted to announce it early. I think he wanted to get it out of the way because he’s a team guy and he wanted then to just concentrate on his performance.

“But at the same time, he wanted to do it the right way and announce it before his last game rather than just walking away and I think that was the right thing to do.

“He’ll be a big loss. He’s contributed so much over the number of years that he’s been here. We wish him well. It was for the right reasons."

Ireland have suffered from key injuries this week, with James Ryan, Garry Ringrose and Will Connors all ruled out. Tadhg Beirne will have big boots to fill as he steps into lock to partner Iain Henderson.

The latter has flourished alongside Ryan in the second row in this tournament and although he will be playing alongside a less familiar partner, he will be confident of continuing his good form.

Sexton has praised Henderson on his fight back to fitness from a knee injury he suffered in December and expects him to step up and be the difference against England.

He said: “Considering [Iain] was out for so long before it, it was a race for him to get fit for the Six Nations.

“The injury he had, he cut that recovery time down which was all credit to him and all the hard work, he’s reaping the rewards now.

“We’re going to need him again on Saturday with James ruled out. He’ll be taking a bigger onus on the lineout as well. He’s been brilliant for us like he has been for a long time. Once his body has been good and he’s been able to stay fit, he’s been outstanding.”

A welcome return from suspension for Peter O’Mahony sees Farrell name him as a replacement after being sent off against Wales last month.

Sexton is confident that O’Mahony will be up to speed with Irish plays and will slot back in seamlessly if called upon from the bench.

He said: “It’s great that Pete’s back from his suspension. He’s been with the group last week and bits of the week before, just staying in contact and making sure he’s up to date with all the lineouts and plays and all that. He was in good form before his suspension and hopefully he can take off from there.”

 
 

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