Johnny Sexton says Ireland may be facing a Wales side lacking many established stars in their Six Nations opener on Saturday, but it would be “insulting” to the players replacing them to talk about it being an easier challenge.
The 36-year-old Ireland skipper added that past history suggests the Welsh can shrug off injuries to key players just as they did last year in winning the Six Nations title.
Wales will be without iconic captain Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Leigh Halfpenny, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi for the entire tournament.
Star wing George North and No 8 Taulupe Faletau are believed to have slim chances of playing in the latter stages.
“We have not spoken too much about what they are missing but who they have got,” said Sexton at a media conference on Tuesday from the Ireland training camp in Portugal.
“They had many in November and in the Six Nations, and the latter, they ended up winning it.
“We are preparing to play a very good Welsh team who had a great run of form over the past year.
“It would be insulting [talking of an easier clash] to those coming in, who are excellent players.
“Those missing have played multiple times and enjoyed great success but these guys coming in could have similar journeys ahead of them.
“There is not one bit of complacency in our camp.”
Ireland are going into the match on an eight-Test winning run and with competition for starting places across the pitch.
However, Sexton says they are in a similar position as they were in November – when they won their three matches including an impressive victory over New Zealand – in not having had much game time.
“We have not had a hell of a lot of game time with games called off owing to Covid-19 or players have had it themselves [including him] or been injured.
“Hopefully we can hit the ground running on Saturday.
“We will be judged by the result, if we win people will say we were good fresh and if we lose people may say we were undercooked.”
The Irish and Welsh matches have had an edge to them down the years but Sexton says they are good friends off the pitch.
“We have had some big battles over the years,” said Sexton.
“The rivalry in the early days when I played there was a nastier side to it.
“Now rivalries in sport like Leinster and Munster are intense because you do not like losing to those close to you.
“The Welsh boys get on so well with the Irish boys on Lions tours.”
This pals act includes Sexton and his Wales opposite number at flyhalf, Dan Biggar, who has assumed the captaincy in Jones’ absence.
The mutual respect runs deep as last week Biggar listed Sexton as the most difficult player to play against.
“We have had some great battles over the years,” said Sexton.
“He is a good pal of mine and he deserves the captaincy thoroughly as he has led from the front since 2015 when he made the jersey his own.
“He has improved immensely his game over the years, he is a world-class operator.”
Biggar has said that with so much Test rugby under his belt he no longer takes in the national anthem and thinks instead of the first play of the match.
Sexton says that despite 101 Tests and being renowned for his intensity, it is different for him when the anthems ring out.
“I am trying to think about the first play but it’s an emotional time as you are representing your country and the people are watching and then you see family and friends in the stands.
“It can be a challenge to focus on the first play.”
© Agence France-Presse
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