AFTER THE JAUNT in Chicago and the Pumas precursor, a first rendezvous with the almighty All Blacks in two years, and a renewal of battle lines in Dublin, offers Ireland another rare glimpse of the most prized scalp of all.

It is already been anticipated as the Test match of the year, the meeting of the first and second-ranked nations in the world with Joe Schmidt’s side seeking to make a significant statement of intent, but there’s the additional carrot of becoming the first Ireland team to topple them on home soil.

Johnny Sexton in Carton House yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

New Zealand’s one-point victory at Twickenham last weekend means Ireland cannot usurp the back-to-back world champions at the top of the rankings this time around, but that takes little of the edge away from the marquee fixture of this November series, and indeed the global schedule. 

Sold out months in advance and a capacity crowd of 50,000 set for the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, the concoction of emotions — excitement, nervousness, anticipation — is simmering nicely. It has all been building towards this. 

In the two years since that indelible day in Chicago, Ireland have hit significant landmarks in their development under Schmidt, scaling rarefied heights by winning in South Africa, claiming a third Grand Slam and then sealing a historic series victory in Australia.

Not to mention their ascension to second in the world, and a record 10 straight home wins since the All Blacks exacted revenge in Dublin a week after Soldier Field. This, however, is the ultimate test less than 12 months out from the World Cup. 

For Johnny Sexton, the out-half’s career has included 11 appearances against the All Blacks for Ireland and the Lions, with his record standing at won two, drawn one and lost eight. 

From his first outing against them in New Plymouth back in 2010, to the unadulterated emotion and ecstasy of 5 November 2016, to the heartbreak felt when Ryan Crotty crossed at the death at Lansdowne Road five years ago, it has been a mix of highs and lows, painful lessons and career-defining highlights.  

Still, the allure of this fixture and sense of suspense in the build-up has never been lost, and the chance to face the All Blacks under the November lights in Dublin is always a special occasion. 

“They’ve always been the pinnacle really of international rugby,” Sexton says. “They’re always the team to beat, they’re always the best team in the world, since I’ve been playing they’ve always been number one, or for the last nine years anyway. 

“They’ve always been number one, they’ve won the last two World Cup, so maybe if you ask guys from different generations they might have thought differently but for me it’s always been about trying to catch them, and I’ve been lucky enough to play in a couple of teams that have done that and now we want to stay up there with them.

“We want to not be a flash in the pan team and challenge them once or twice, but that every time we play against them it’s a really tough game for them.”

Sexton in action against Barrett back in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ireland showed the way at Soldier Field two years ago, breaking their hoodoo by producing a momentous performance to vanquish Hansen’s side, instantly changing the dynamic of this fixture from an Irish perspective and altering the mindset.

And then the vengeful All Blacks — hurt, and embarrassed, by a first-ever defeat to Ireland — arrived in Dublin a week later, gunning to restore order and lay down the law.

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Sexton lasted 19 minutes that day as the visitors unleashed full fury from the outset at the Aviva, seeking and sensing blood during an indisciplined performance which saw them have Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa sin-binned while conceding 14 penalties.

They still plundered victory.

“Yeah, it was physical for those 19 minutes I lasted,” Sexton recalls. “Look it is always a very physical game but that one went over the edge didn’t it.

“That was a massive moment where high tackles suddenly became what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. After that, I feel that things changed and you wouldn’t get away with that now.”

Sexton hobbled off with a hamstring injury, before Ireland were further compromised by the loss of Robbie Henshaw, who was unwittingly wiped out by Sam Cane, with the out-half left furious that the tackle went unpunished by referee Jaco Peyper.

“What? A penalty? But the player’s on the stretcher,” Sexton told the official, to no avail.

Looking back now on the way New Zealand played that day, the 33-year-old admits that it was, in fact, a sign of respect. That they needed to be that physical, to be that cynical because Hansen’s men knew they were in a fight. It was almost a compliment. 

“Being a part of a few teams that have done it now, I think this side is capable of it but we need to get everything right at the weekend, and we need to be close to our best.”

That’s the challenge. This will be just the third time Ireland have played New Zealand in the six seasons that Schmidt has been in charge and, in this year of all years, will provide the most accurate assessment of their progress under the Kiwi.  

The fact that this game sees the top two sides in the world rankings go head-to-head adds to the potency of the occasion, as does the out-half battle with Sexton in direct competition with Beauden Barrett for the World Player of the Year award.

Sexton kicked 13 points against Argentina. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

There are so many fascinating subplots. It couldn’t be set up any better. 

“For us, if we were eighth in the world, playing against New Zealand, it would still be as special,” Sexton says. 

“To be honest about it, we haven’t talked too much about the one and two of the world rankings too much. It’s probably not an issue. It’s probably an issue when the next World Cup polls are drawn.

“We’ve thought only about our performance against New Zealand, where we think can get at them a little bit. That’s as far as the thought process has gone really.”

He adds: “We’ll treat it like the massive game that it is, every chance you get to play against New Zealand, especially at home in front of your family and friends, it’s a very special thing and the amount of people texting, looking for tickets, suggests that as well.

“So it’s one to really cherish and look forward to and for a few lads it could be the last time they play against New Zealand as well, so you want to send them off with that sort of memory.” 

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