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'Whenever Johnny is in the team a lot of things happen'

INTERVIEW: Ireland versus South Africa at Stade de France is building up to be as big and intense an occasion as the opening World Cup match between hosts France and New Zealand.

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The encounter between the No.1 (Ireland) and No.2 (South Africa) teams in the world is certain to be played in a sold-out cauldron at the national stadium of France, located just north of Paris in the commune of Saint-Denis.

Both teams have their iconic figures that command respect and adoration on the world stage.

However, one of the most ‘intimidating’ players is the Irish captain Johnny Sexton.

Sexton, one of the most decorated players in Irish history, is a ‘vital’ cog in the Irish system.

Even before the start of the tournament in France, he had scored over 1,000 international points.

Capped for the first time against Fiji in 2009, he is appearing in his fourth World Cup.

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Throw in a couple of British & Irish Lions tours, a Six Nations winner four times – 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2023 and World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018 and you begin to get an idea of his true status.

Not surprisingly then South Africa’s Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus regarded him as vital to the outcome of Saturday’s crucial clash.

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“When I was at Munster, we beat them [Leinster, where Sexton played] once – at Thomond Park,” Erasmus told a media briefing in Paris.

“Whenever Johnny is in the team, a lot of things happen – not just as a player.

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“I think the aura around him and his presence lifts his team.

“For a man at 38 to score tries like he did this past weekend [in a 59-16 win over Tonga] is amazing.

“The previous time we played them [a 19-16 win for Ireland in Dublin last November] he put some great little grubbers through and even outsprinted one of our guys,” the SARU boss said.

“As long as he is physically out there, there is no doubt about his influence.

“His ability to keep the scoreboard ticking is also crucial.

“The aura he has about him is exceptional, not just for his own team but very intimidating for us as the opposition.”

With both Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber having coached at Munster and a number of players still plying their trade in Ireland, there is a familiarity the two countries have with each other.

Erasmus admitted the link (familiarity with each other) is important.

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“It boils down to respect,” Erasmus told a media briefing at the start of the build-up to the #BIG Round Three face-off.

“I know Paul O’Connell [forwards coach] well from my time at Munster, they know Jacques [Nienaber] well, Felix [Jones, Ireland international and former Munster assistant coach] know them well.

“We respect them as brilliant players and coaches, also being No.1 in the world.

“Hopefully we got some respect from them as well when we worked with them.

“The individual knowledge we have of the players, as well as what they know of us and our coaching style – along with players like Jean Kleyn and RG Snyman – evens it all out.

“It comes down to the respect we have for each other’s work ethic.”

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