"They're going to try shut him down" - Sexton an All Blacks target
"New Zealand pick the best team for New Zealand, not the best team to mess up Ireland"
There were a couple of bombs, and players, dropped when Steve Hansen named his 23 to face Ireland in Tokyo on Saturday.
New Zealand's mantra has always been the best player for the jersey on the day plays. Sentiment, experience and sometimes even logic don't feature in the list of criteria. So the fact that there was no room for fullback Ben Smith or breaker of Irish hearts Ryan Crotty in the matchday squad shows not only the depth of talent in the All Blacks squad, but just how ruthless their team selections can be.
Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue form the centre partnership while Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga continue their recently formed and equally terrifying 10/15 axis that caused the Springboks so much trouble in the opening weekend of the tournament. It's a physical and abrasive pairing in midfield, and it poses the question whether that was chosen deliberately with their opposition in mind.
Ireland are not going into this game in the best vein of form, to put it mildly. Some hope can be taken from last weekend's performance against Samoa, but Joe Schmidt's men still seem a shadow of the side that defeated the All Blacks just 11 months ago on Lansdowne Road.
The reliance on Sexton has always been known, but it's become glaringly obvious that without the Leinster 10 Ireland's attack simply doesn't function. They looked slow, lethargic and blunt against Japan and Russia when Sexton wasn't on the pitch, lacking in ideas and barely making it over the gainline time and time again.
Frankly, Johnny Sexton needs to play out of his skin if Ireland are to have any hope. The problem is, New Zealand know that.
Speaking earlier this week, New Zealand flanker Matt Todd was unequivocal in what their approach will be;
"You want to try to put any playmaker under pressure but it's easier said than done...That's certainly our plan, we want to take away his time and take away his space and make it as hard a night as we can for him because he is such a key player for them."
We've seen plenty of teams do this against Sexton. Repeated borderline late hits from New Zealand teams, legal but nasty two-man tackles from England, shoulders to the head from France. Ireland even used it against Scotland when they tried to do it in Murrayfield this year, using Sexton as a sacrificial lamb in setting up a try for Jacob Stockdale.
He'll be ready for it.
Speaking on The JOEpan Rugby Show this week, JOE's Head of Rugby Jerry Flannery was clear that Steve Hansen picks his All Blacks side with one thing in mind: the All Blacks.
"Yeah I don't think New Zealand will pick their team... They'll pick the best team for New Zealand, not the best team to mess up Ireland. They'll be focused on themselves. But I think that as a result of having Mo'unga and Barrett, Crotty as a first receiver is probably not as much of a priority. So now they do have two very, very big and physical centres in Linert-Brown and in Goodhue. I think that that's going to help them in putting pressure on Johnny Sexton."
That being said, Fla knows just how much New Zealand will try to disrupt Sexton's game;
"The more they can take away time from him, the more they can affect Johnny's pass accuracy, kick accuracy... specifically his kick accuracy. If they can actually affect his game... if Johnny's allowed to play with time, he's one of the most accurate kickers in the world and that will drive Ireland's game. So look, I think they're going to try and shut him down."
We all remember the carnage that ensued when New Zealand arrived to Dublin in 2016 on a demolition mission after the Soldier Field defeat. Here's hoping a lid is kept on it this time.
On Episode 7 of the JOEpan Rugby Show this week, Rob and Jerry take a look ahead to Ireland v New Zealand and England v Australia. The full episode is available in the link below ?