IF France star Romain Ntamack was trying to pile pressure on Ireland by labelling them as “clear favourites” for Saturday’s crunch clash, then Johnny Sexton wasn’t buying it.
The Aviva Stadium match-up is being billed as the defining clash of this Six Nations, pitting as it does the top two teams in the world for the first time in the competition’s history.
For the record, Ireland are four-point favourites with the bookies and speaking in Rome where France have based themselves ahead of the game, Ntamack said the hosts should be feeling comfortable,
“They are world number one, it’s not for nothing, they are comfortably favourites,” he told AFP.
“There’s no debate. They showed and proved that in round one against Wales. They’re good in all sectors, they have very few weaknesses, if any. It’s going to be an arm wrestle for 80 minutes,”
In the past, that might have been a burden on an Irish team but Sexton, Andy Farrell and performance coach Gary Keegan have been working hard to make the squad more comfortable with expectation.
“I don’t really mind,” the skipper said today.
“The favourites tag is not something we mention internally.
“Being number one in the world, the public or the press will do it or the opposition will, but it comes down to the performance on the day.
“If we’re favourites, we’re favourites. It doesn’t really bother me if that’s what he says.”
Ntamack did pay tribute to Sexton who has missed the France game the last two seasons.
“When one sees his age and his quality… He is a role model for every rugby player, not just for fly-halves,” he said.
“In every sector of the game he is a great player and one sees that with Ireland: when he is there everything runs smoothly; when he is not there, it is a less well oiled machine. He is a hugely important player.”
For Sexton, who has been cleared to play after overcoming a dead leg and passing the concussion protocols, this is the ultimate test for Ireland.
“They’ve had outstanding success with 14 games on the bounce unbeaten,” he said.
“Shaun Edwards isn’t the head coach but a lot of what he did with Wales, you can see it all over the team, they kick long, real aggressive defence with some outstanding individuals littered through the team.
“They are the full package really, that’s the message and we are going to have to be at our very best to get a win.
“The last two Wednesdays before France over the past two fixtures I’ve ended up pulling out, so to get through today is great.
“Hopefully I can get through today without any hiccups.
“It feels like a huge game. It is a huge game. There’s no point in saying anything otherwise.
“You can’t just come in here and say ‘it’s just another game’ because it’s not, it’s one we’ve waited a long time for and I’ve read that they want this test; to come to the Aviva and try and overturn us.”
Given they’re on the same side of the draw, the two sides may yet meet in a defining World Cup game later this year but Sexton says this is all about the Six Nations.
“That’s not something we’ve spoken about,” he said.
“We’re focused fully on this and, if we did meet them at the World Cup, it would be in their home venue so, again, it would be a totally different dynamic whereas this is our home game and we just want to win to progress in the Championship.”
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