Johnny Sexton sounded a rallying cry as Ireland prepared to face off against New Zealand in the biggest match in the country's history, demanding that his teammates walk off the pitch at the end of Saturday's World Cup quarter-final clash being able to look themselves in the eye and know that they had played their best.

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Sexton, who practised alone at the Ajinomoto Stadium on Friday, with the rest of the Ireland team opting against the three-hour round trip from their hotel in Tokyo Disneyland, struck a calm but determined note.

The sense of desperation back home has grown with each quadrennial failure; each near miss. Six times Ireland have made the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup and six times they have come up short.

Expectations this time are only slightly tempered by the fact that they are facing tournament favourites and back-to-back world champions New Zealand.

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Ireland have only themselves to blame for that, having lost to Japan in the pool stages. But the facts are what they are. All week Ireland have been candid about the fact that they could play their best and still end up losing.

Sexton repeated that again on Friday. But Ireland's talisman, who was clear that this Ireland team was "right up there" with the best he had ever played with, said it was vitally important that they held up their side of the bargain and produced a performance of which they could all be proud.

"Of course we'd like it to be better but it is what it is," Sexton replied when asked about the team's unwanted quarter-final record. "There's nothing we can do about previous results now.

"All we can do now is concentrate on putting in our best performance. That will give us a chance. And if we can walk off that pitch having played our best, having given it everything, we can look at ourselves afterwards no matter what. That's what we focus on.

"The record at the tournament - it's not something that we've overly spoken about.

"Of course we know we can make history, we can create something a little bit special if we can do that [reach a semifinal]. But I can't really speak about Ireland's record because it's been a different team every time."

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Photo / Photosport
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Photo / Photosport

Sexton was speaking after training alone with skills coach Richie Murphy beneath dank Tokyo skies at the Ajinomoto Stadium. Joe Schmidt decided against holding a captain's run at the stadium, with the journey from Disneyland Tokyo almost three hours there and back.

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"I've never not kicked at the stadium a day before the game and I wasn't going to start something new now," Sexton explained after turning up 40 minutes late to his press conference, something which visibly riled the New Zealand press pack. "I wanted the preparation to be as usual. As you saw, I had the bus to myself, I had the pitch to myself. I chilled out on the bus and I'll do the same on the way back [now]."

Ireland fans will hope that Sexton's solitary appearance at the stadium was not a sign. They badly need the rest of the team to turn up on Saturday. Ireland have looked an entirely different proposition when their main man has been on the pitch, but he should not be expected to carry the team on just his shoulders.

This will be the 56th time that Sexton and scrum-half Conor Murray have played in tandem, a new Ireland record, and second only to Australia's Will Genia and Stephen Larkham in rugby history. Murray is also key, and looked to be back to something approaching his best form during the pool stages.

But other players, many of whom have been on winning teams against New Zealand for Ireland and the Lions - Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw - need to stand up and be counted.

Sexton denied that Ireland's record in quarter-finals meant they were ill-equipped to deal with knockout rugby.

"I actually remember Declain Kidney saying that to us in 2011 that we had been reared on knockout rugby. We came up through the schools system, club rugby, knockout rugby, played for Marys, the All Ireland, and then the Heineken Cups. So we're sort of reared on it.

"We probably play a little bit more than New Zealand if you think that they go straight into the semis after the conference stages.

"We're really looking forward to getting out there on the big stage and trying to show what we can do against the best team in the world, a team that hasn't lost a World Cup game in two World Cups. It's going to be an enormous challenge but one we're excited and eager about. We want to make people at home really proud."


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