Jonathan Sexton has challenged new-look Ireland to seize the chance to establish the next golden generation of international stars.
The Irish head into today’s Guinness Series opener against South Africa at Aviva Stadium without their two injured Lions captains Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell.
Four seasoned campaigners – Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney, Rory Best and Sean O’Brien –have also been lost to the treatment room. Robbed of six key personnel, Ireland face seemingly insurmountable odds even if a run of three wins in four Test against the Springboks is encouraging. But rather than wilting before the challenge awaiting them, Sexton has demanded his team-mates begin the process of transforming themselves into household names
“We have to believe that we’re good enough,” said the Leinster fly-half. “We’re obviously missing a lot of very good players, but at some stage of their careers those guys that we’re missing would have been the new kids on the block. It’s time now for us to step up and start building the type of reputations those guys have. They developed those reputations by producing week-in, week-out for Ireland and hopefully we can start doing that now.”
Little has gone Ireland’s way as they seek to end a sequence of successive Test defeats dating back to England in the final match of the RBS Six Nations. Completing the run was the summer whitewash by New Zealand, who inflicted a humiliating 60-0 rout upon an Irish team that just a week earlier was on the brink of a first victory over the All Blacks.
Beating South Africa would ease the anguish of that result in June and Sexton insists the experience could yet prove useful.
“We took a lot of positives from the first Test and then learnt a lot from the second,” he said. “In that third Test we made three mistakes and were 21-0 down, then we were chasing the game which is very dangerous when you’re playing the All Blacks. They picked us off and we’ve learnt from that if we ever go behind again, we’ll never chase it that hard.”
Ireland: S Zebo (Munster); T Bowe (Ulster), K Earls (Munster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Strauss (Leinster), M Ross (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), M McCarthy (Connacht), P O’Mahony (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster, capt). Subs: S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), M Bent (Leinster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), I Henderson (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), F McFadden (Leinster)..
South Africa: Z Kirchner; J P Pietersen, J Taute, J de Villiers (capt), F Hougaard; P Lambie, R Pienaar; T Mtawarira, A Strauss, J du Plessis, E Etzebeth, J Kruger, F Louw, W Alberts, D Vermeulen. Subs: S Brits, C J van der Linde, P Cilliers, F van der Merwe, M Coetzee, M Steyn, J de Jongh, L Mvovo.
Referee: W Barnes (Eng).