Kevin Sinfield will take some time to consider his next campaign after completing the latest energy-sapping fundraising challenge to help people living with motor neurone disease as the push to raise awareness and research for a cure goes on.

Inspired by former Leeds team-mate Rob Burrow, the 43-year-old pushed through a gruelling schedule of running seven ultramarathons in as many days in seven different cities around Britain and Ireland.

Sinfield, the current England rugby union defence coach, had again battled the elements en route to crossing the finishing line to a rapturous welcome on The Mall in London on Thursday afternoon.

The team had taken to the roads once again to raise awareness of MND and funds for five charities supporting people affected by the condition and their families, and also to fund research into effective treatments and ultimately a cure.

Each leg of his latest challenge comprised 27 miles – the conventional marathon distance with an extra mile added to signify how much further people can go to help friends in need.

On Thursday evening, the Motor Neurone Disease Association confirmed with online and other donations, Sinfield’s latest campaign had passed the £777,777 target.

Proceeds from the ‘7in7in7’ initiative will go to mainly to the MND Association and Leeds Hospitals Charity appeal to build the Rob Burrow MND centre in the city.

There will also be donations to the My Name’5 Doddie, the Irish MND Association, the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation and support for the 4ED campaign.

Although taking a well-deserved to reflect with his team on their achievements, Sinfield knows there remains plenty of hard work ahead in the continuing quest for a cure.

“I think we will see,” Sinfield said when asked what other challenges might be on the horizon.

“What I am really conscious of is the team have put so much into the last four that we have done and I can’t do it on my own.

“I know we are extremely passionate about what we have done. We have got some time together on the bus tonight, so we will let everybody settle and enjoy, to celebrate because it has been a really good week.

“I will never say never – there is a big possibility we will go again.

“I think some of that will show in what our grand total ends up being, because we are certainly all conscious of compassion fatigue.

“But we are also really conscious that we are really passionate about the MND community and how we can help it, whether that is through running or not, we are not sure.

“But we are really keen to see the donations and where those end up, because ultimately they are the things that really shift it.

“We want to raise the awareness, we want to change how people feel about the MND community.

“But if we are really going to help them, then we need to continue to raise money so that they can find a cure.”

Sinfield added: “Wherever we have been now, we have had unbelievable support, especially from the MND community, so that needs to continue in some way, shape or form.”

Former England bowler Stuart Broad and Rugby World Cup winner Will Greenwood were among the guests who joined Sinfield during the final leg in London, which had started at Twickenham.

With his latest campaign put to bed, it will not be long before Sinfield’s attentions turn swiftly back to his day job.

“I have got some work to do tomorrow and I will be at a game on Sunday (Sale v Stade Francais), but I will try to catch up on some sleep and I want to see some family,” Sinfield said.

“I was away for five months and then had a busy month getting ready for this, then away again for a week so I am really looking forward to Christmas.”

:: To donate to Kevin Sinfield’s 7 in 7 in 7 quest, visit https://donate.giveasyoulive.com/fundraising/kevin-sinfield

Jason Knight has admitted the Republic of Ireland’s new generation must develop a ruthless streak if they are to fulfil their potential.

A difficult Euro 2024 Group B campaign drew to its seemingly inevitable conclusion on Saturday evening when a 1-0 defeat by the Netherlands in Amsterdam sent the Dutch through to next summer’s finals in Germany and Ireland home to lick their wounds.

Stephen Kenny’s men knew in advance of the game at the Johan Cruyff Arena that even the safety net of a play-off place via the Nations League had evaporated, and they were left to reflect upon home and away defeats by France, the Netherlands and Greece and a return of just six points at Gibraltar’s expense to show for their efforts.

Asked what lessons they had learned, Bristol City midfielder Knight said: “It’s fresh, but playing against Holland and France is about having a clinical edge.

“That’s been a large part of all the games we’ve been equal in: they’ve taken their chances and we haven’t. We defended well in large parts of all the games. Looking back briefly off the top of my head, we lacked a bit of creative spark and those goals when we needed to capitalise.

“The confidence is good. We’re playing some good attractive football at times. We’ve fallen on the wrong side of results against good teams. France and the Netherlands aren’t minnows of world football.

“There’s confidence within the group and definitely confidence we’ll turn it around.”

Knight, 22, is one of the flag-bearers for Kenny’s drastically overhauled squad which has seen the manager promote from the Under-21 ranks and promote a front-foot approach.

His efforts have met with limited success – Ireland have won just six of the 29 competitive games they have played under his charge, and that bottom line is perhaps the most potent weapon in the armoury of those calling for change.

Kenny is out of contract after Tuesday night’s friendly against New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium and his future will be decided at a meeting of the Football Association of Ireland’s board on November 28 when members consider a review of the campaign.

Whatever the outside noise, the 52-year-old’s players remain steadfastly behind him and Knight reiterated that message when asked about the future.

 

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He said: “Well, my view is that the manager is still here and we’re treating it as so. The manager has been great to me and the players. We want to be winning more games for him, but we’ll see what happens.”

 

Defeat in Amsterdam came courtesy of Wout Weghorst’s 12th-minute strike, although the game was not as close as the scoreline suggested and but for some less than effective finishing and the efforts of Republic keeper Gavin Bazunu, Ronald Koeman’s men could have had qualification tied up long before the final whistle.

Knight said: “We wanted a good performance and result, which ultimately we didn’t do. There were good parts to it. We just lacked a bit of creativity and cutting edge up top.

“There’s no doubt they’re a good team, but we can certainly be better in all aspects of our game, especially creating and scoring goals.”

Nyeem Young will lead a West Indies Men’s Academy squad for the upcoming home series against Ireland Academy. The two teams will play three List A matches (50 overs) and two four-day first-class matches from 17 November to 5 December at the Coolidge Cricket Ground (CCG) and the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium (SVRS) in Antigua.

The West Indies squad is mainly comprised of the players in the West Indies Academy programme, who have just played in the CG United Super50 Cup as well as the Headley-Weekes Tri-Series earlier this year.

The CWI Selection Panel has included four new players - teenagers – Jordan Johnson, a left-handed middle-order batter and fast bowler Isai Thorne as well as Junior Sinclair, a right-handed spin bowling all-rounder and Kadeem Alleyne, a batting all-rounder.

Johnson was the stand-out player in the West Indies Rising Stars Men’s Under 19s tour to Sri Lanka in September when he made three centuries. Sinclair was impressive in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) and was a member of the Guyana Amazon Warriors which won their first CPL title on home soil in September.

Alleyne, who will play the white ball series, was impressive batting at the top of the order for Combined Campuses and Colleges (CCC) in the CG United Super50 Cup. Thorne, who will play the red ball fixtures, bowled with pace and penetration on the Rising Stars Under 19 tour to Sri Lanka.

 

“The Ireland Series has great significance to the CWI High Performance Pathway as it will be the first bilateral Series since the Academy programme was introduced in July 2022,” Graeme West, CWI’s High Performance Manager explained.

“Playing both 50-over and red-ball four-day series will provide the Academy squad with further opportunities to progress their skills following promising showings in the Headley-Weekes Series and more recently in the CG United Super50 Cup.”

West revealed that the players are eagerly anticipating the contest against the Irish team.

“The Academy squad really embraced the challenge that the CG United Super50 Cup provided, and it was encouraging to see the conversion of winning positions as this was a focus area coming out of 2022. We will look to see the learning over the past three weeks come through during the 50 over series against Ireland,” he said.

“The two four-day games will allow the players to gain more experience and reinforce the gameplan that worked so successfully during the Headley-Weekes Tri-Series. With Kirk McKenzie and Kevlon Anderson graduating to their respective franchises, the Series will provide Jordan Johnson with the platform to build on his exceptional performances for the West Indies Rising Stars Under-19 side in Sri Lanka.”

FULL SQUAD: Nyeem Young (captain), Ackeem Auguste, Joshua Bishop, Teddy Bishop, Carlon Bowen-Tuckett, McKenny Clarke, Jordan Johnson, Leonardo Julien, Johann Layne, Matthew Nandu, Ashmead Nedd, Kelvin Pitman, Junior Sinclair, Kevin Wickham, Kadeem Alleyne (white ball matches only), Isai and Thorne (red ball matches only).

 

MATCH SCHEDULE

 17 November: 1st 50-Over match at SVRS

19 November: 2nd 50-Over match at CCG

21 November: 3rd 50-Over match at SVRS

 

25-28 November: 1st four-day match at CCG

2-5 December: 2nd four-day match at CCG

 

 

 

 

Jumps fans are served up a midweek treat in Ireland on Thursday as one of the sport’s superstars makes his long-awaited return in the Clonmel Oil Chase.

Willie Mullins has landed seven of the last 10 editions of the Grade Two feature at Powerstown Park, with Champagne Fever (2014), Kemboy (2018) and Douvan (2019) among those on the roll of honour.

This year the champion trainer saddles two of the of declared runners, with Janidil joined by his long-absent and esteemed stablemate Allaho.

The Cheveley Park Stud-owned gelding was spectacular in winning back-to-back renewals of the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, pummelling his rivals by 12 and 14 lengths respectively, before successfully stepping up to three miles with a 14-length demolition job in the 2022 Punchestown Gold Cup.

He has not been seen in competitive action since the latter of those triumphs 19 months ago, but will nevertheless be a short price to dispatch of his three rivals in the hands of Paul Townend.

“Allaho has been fantastic for us, winning a couple of Ryanairs, a Punchestown Gold Cup and a John Durkan. It’s great to see him back and hopefully he can show us that he’s back to his best,” said Cheveley Park Stud director Richard Thompson.

“He’s nine turning 10 in January, he’s been one of the stalwarts from the bunch of jumps horses we bought and hopefully we’ll still have some good days with him.

“He’s been off the track since April 2022, a good year and a half, so it will be fascinating to see him back and we’ll see how he gets on.

“Before he got injured last season we hoped he might be a three-time winner of the Ryanair and hopefully still can be.”

The biggest threat to the Mullins pair is French Dynamite, who bids to provide Mouse Morris with another big-race win following Gentlemansgame’s victory in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby on Saturday.

Morris said: “He’ll probably take the run and it would be hard to think we’ll beat Allaho, but it’s a good place to start and it will put him right for wherever we want to go afterwards.”

John Ryan’s outsider Grange Walk completes the quartet.

Ireland’s Rugby World Cup adventure ended in a familiar quarter-final exit.

Andy Farrell’s men went into the tournament at the top of the global rankings but were unable to break new ground by winning a knockout match.

Here, the PA news agency takes a closer look at Ireland’s campaign.

Results

Ireland’s campaign was launched with routine wins from their more straightforward fixtures. They began with a bang by registering the nation’s record World Cup victory – an 82-8 thrashing of minnows Romania in Bordeaux – and backed it up with another bonus-point success, 59-16 against Tonga in Nantes. Mack Hansen’s try helped secure a statement 13-8 triumph over South Africa to give the Six Nations champions control of Pool B. Farrell’s side then returned to Paris to emphatically survive an elimination shoot-out with Scotland, prevailing 36-14. But Ireland’s remarkable 17-match winning run was cruelly halted a week later by an agonising 28-24 Stade de France loss to New Zealand as their quarter-final curse continued.

Selection

Farrell was extremely consistent with his team selections, making minimal changes and going virtually full strength in each fixture. The head coach had the luxury of limited injury issues among his first-choice starters during the tournament, albeit hooker Dan Sheehan and back-rower Jack Conan came into it recovering from foot issues, while lock James Ryan was absent for the quarter-final against the All Blacks. Whether the lack of rotation ultimately harmed Ireland’s chances is debatable. Captain Johnny Sexton, who arrived in France having not played for almost six months due to injury and suspension, was among 10 players to begin every game. More than a third of squad members – 12 – did not start a single match.

Star performers

Colossal centre Bundee Aki was in the form of his life. The outstanding 33-year-old played every minute, scoring five tries in as many appearances, including one against his native New Zealand. He picked up two man-of-the-match awards and was among the tournament’s top performers. Lock Tadhg Beirne was not far behind in terms of eye-catching displays, while consistent pair Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan also excelled. Veteran fly-half Sexton was in record-breaking form, surpassing Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s leading points scorer, before his stellar career ended in heartbreaking fashion. Sheehan shone when available, as did wing Hansen.

Future

Farrell’s current contract runs until 2025 and many of his dejected players spoke of elimination marking the end of an era. Test centurions Sexton and Keith Earls are heading into retirement. Plenty of others will not be around for the 2027 tournament in Australia as 17 of the 33-man squad were aged 30 or above. Yet there is plenty of reason for optimism. Leinster lock Joe McCarthy and Munster fly-half Jack Crowley form part of the exciting new generation, while established stars Sheehan, Caelan Doris and Keenan can kick on. Furthermore, Ireland’s pathway programme is impressive. Their under-20 side are back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slam champions, having also achieved the feat in 2019.

Ireland levelled the one-day international series against Scotland with a 79-run victory in their second match in Almeria.

After winning the toss, Ireland opted to bat and opener Leah Paul helped put her side in a strong position, enjoying a second-wicket partnership of 70 with Amy Hunter (56) before being caught and bowled by Priyanaz Chatterji for 58.

Hunter’s dismissal left Ireland on 188 for three but Orla Prendergast kept the runs flowing, eventually falling lbw for 64 to Scotland captain Kathryn Bryce, who then claimed her second wicket of the innings with the capture of Ava Canning.

Ireland skipper Laura Delany finished unbeaten on 28 to set Scotland a target of 271, but despite a solid start from Sarah Bryce and Darcey Carter, they then lost three wickets within 16 runs as Bryce fell for 23 followed by Carter (16), before Chatterji was out for a duck.

Kathryn Bryce then piled on the runs, smashing 67 off 58 balls before being bowled by Freya Sargent, and the spinner clipped the top of leg stump to dismiss new batter Lorna Jack with her very next delivery.

Ailsa Lister tried to dig Scotland out of a hole but wickets were tumbling fast at the other end.

Lister was eventually removed for 47 as Canning picked up her fourth wicket of the game, and the dismissal of Olivia Bell left Scotland all out for 191 as Ireland wrapped up a comfortable win with 11 overs to spare ahead of the final ODI on Saturday.

New Zealand boss Ian Foster has warned his players “not to get softened” by the acclaim which followed their thrilling World Cup win over Ireland ahead of a semi-final showdown with Argentina.

The All Blacks booked a last-four spot by upsetting Andy Farrell’s men with a pulsating 28-24 victory in Paris.

New Zealand return to Stade de France on Friday evening and are red-hot favourites to progress to a final against either England or reigning champions South Africa.

Head coach Foster feels “being patted on the back” following a statement last-eight victory over the Irish derailed the Kiwis in the 2019 tournament and is eager to avoid history repeating itself.

“The best way to recover is to refocus really quickly on what the next challenge is and not to listen too much to any praise you’re given as a group for a performance,” said Foster, who was assistant to Steve Hansen four years ago when New Zealand lost to England in the semi-finals.

“Not to go down that path, not to get softened because everyone’s patting you on the back saying you played well.

“That’s not a good place to be as a team.

“I love the way the team has buckled down, we’ve redefined the challenge for us as a group, we’re not satisfied with where we are now and when you’re clear about your goal for the week the recovery comes along pretty quickly.

“You know that if we’re not right on Friday night at Stade de France, it’s going to be a sad old night and we don’t want it to be like that.

“You get people talking to you about tomorrow and trying to take your eyes off today.

“In 2019 we probably didn’t stop being patted on the back after the quarter-final, hence some of my language today and we’re just trying to dial this back, keep things simple and let’s just worry about Friday.”

New Zealand’s starting XV shows two changes, with wing Mark Telea and lock Sam Whitelock in for Leicester Fainga’anuku and Brodie Retallick.

Telea was dropped for last weekend’s clash with Ireland due to a breach of team protocols.

Foster says the 26-year-old, who has scored three tries in the tournament, has served his punishment.

“That’s the team we think is best for this week,” he said.

“Mark’s done his time. He made a mistake, he accepted what was happening.

“But you don’t linger in that space. He’s been our form winger through this tournament and we really have a lot of faith in him and believe he’s in a good place to play this game.

“It’s a chance for us to get Mark back on the park and I know he’s excited.”

Underdogs Argentina have won two of the past seven meetings between the nations, including a landmark first success on New Zealand soil – 25-18 in Christchurch – in last year’s Rugby Championship.

Foster is braced for a “heck of a game”.

“You’ve never heard us say we’re favourites,” he said. “We know that these games are do-or-die.

“It’s the best team on the night that wins it. We know Argentina has done that to us. We’re not buying into anything about favouritism or underdogs.

“They are perhaps an underrated team worldwide that has got a really rich history of perhaps overachieving at World Cups.

“They have done a fantastic job to get here at the same level as we are. It’s going to be a heck of a game.”

Republic of Ireland coach Stephen Kenny insists he cannot allow himself to wonder what might have been after his sliding doors moment in Faro.

The 51-year-old will send his team into Euro 2024 qualifier battle with European minnows Gibraltar in the Algarve on Monday evening knowing their automatic qualification hopes are already over, and that even the chance of a wild card via the play-offs may be out of their grasp.

Just how different things could have been had his last visit to the Estadio Algarve, for a World Cup qualifier against Portugal in September 2021, not ended with a last-gasp Cristiano Ronaldo double which transformed a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory for the hosts – and established Ronaldo as international football’s leading scorer – is something upon which Kenny admits he has reflected since.

Kenny said: “You can’t dwell on things, but have I reflected on it? Of course.

“We were 1-0 ahead after 89 minutes and the game should be finished out. Cristiano Ronaldo has other ideas and the world record was on the line that night, so he was hugely motivated to break that.

“It was a very good performance that night. VAR intervened for an absolute cast-iron penalty to go 2-0 up in the second half, nailed-on penalty.

“That’s the way it goes. What ifs… there’s no point in complaining. You move on and that’s it.”

Ireland ultimately did not make it to last year’s World Cup finals, and neither will they be in Germany next summer unless their fortunes change markedly and they manage to secure a play-off spot and make it count.

There is even a complicated scenario in which they might be better off losing their final qualifier in the Netherlands next month depending on results elsewhere, although Kenny insists he is not even contemplating that.

He said: “No, it’s not something that’s really entered our heads. It’s not something that really we’d focus on. If we were to play any game, we’d play to win, any international game.

“We would just focus on Gibraltar tomorrow. It’s an international game that we want to win. We have to get a win under our belt tomorrow and I’m not really fixated on that scenario.”

Kenny, who confirmed that his contract would cover any play-off, has found himself in the firing line since Friday night’s 2-0 home defeat by Greece, although with World Cup finalists France and the Dutch also in Group B, the alarm bells starting ringing after their 2-1 reverse in Athens in June.

However, asked if he would resign should things go from bad to worse in Faro, he said: “I’m not considering resigning. My contact is to the end of the campaign and I will finish it.

“We want to finish the campaign strongly and we are very determined to do that. After that, it’s completely out of my control. I have no control over the rest.”

Andy Farrell believes the inspirational spirit of outgoing captain Johnny Sexton can help Ireland return to challenge on the biggest stage after another agonising World Cup exit marked the end of an era.

Ireland suffered elimination following Saturday evening’s tense 28-24 defeat to New Zealand in Paris which stretched their wait for a knockout win at the tournament to 36 years and counting.

Fly-half Sexton and veteran wing Keith Earls are already confirmed to be heading for retirement, while Farrell’s 33-man squad in France contained a further 15 players aged 30 or above.

 

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The head coach expects the togetherness developed during the last four-year cycle to continue regardless of potential personnel changes and feels the departing Sexton will remain a key part of that.

“I think a lot of our group are still learning and I said to the group in the changing room the reason they’re going to keep on learning is because of this guy (Sexton) sat beside me here,” said Farrell.

“The impact that he’s had on the rest of the team over the last four years has been amazing.

“And the way that he’s conducted himself as a leader and as a player and the way that he’s shown the love of playing for Ireland will be remembered and connected to this group for many years to come.

“Through his example, the younger guys will keep on getting better and striving to be better, there’s no doubt about that.”

Ireland went into a mouthwatering showdown with the All Blacks as the world’s top-ranked team and marginal favourites.

But their remarkable 17-match winning run was halted as the Kiwis avenged last summer’s series defeat on home soil to book a last-four meeting with Argentina.

Asked what gives him confidence for the future, Farrell continued: “Just knowing what we’ve got. The type of character that we’ve got, the type of people we’ve got, the type of player, staff.

“The hunger to want to wear the green jersey.

“It is the end for this team because people are going to be leaving, but the competition that this team has built over the years will continue because of how it’s been driven, certainly over the last couple of years.

“The talent that we’ve got in Ireland will continue to come through and we’ll continue to challenge, I have no doubt about that.”

Fine margins decided a thrilling Stade de France showdown, with New Zealand continually holding Ireland at arm’s length to lead from the eighth minute to the final whistle.

 

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Scores from native Kiwis Bundee Aki and Jamison Gibson-Park, plus a penalty try, kept Farrell’s men on the cusp of a stunning comeback from 13-0 down.

 

Farrell had reservations about a raft of scrum penalties conceded by prop Andrew Porter, but was eager for Ireland to avoid sounding like “bitter losers”.

“We’ve a different view to what was going on out there, but we don’t want to sit here and have sour grapes,” he said. “We want to congratulate New Zealand on a fantastic performance.

“The scrum was part of the equation, 100 per cent, and we’ll get the answers. Andrew 100 per cent was very frustrated with what was going on out there.

“We don’t want to be bitter losers. We want to hold our head up high and do it the right way.”

Meanwhile, Sexton paid tribute to fellow retiree Earls, who bows out on 101 caps and second only to Brian O’Driscoll in Ireland’s all-time list of try scorers.

“He’s a legend and one of my best mates, not just in rugby but in life,” said Sexton.

“He’s a top-class human being. You couldn’t meet a more popular lad in the squad.

“He’ll go down as one of the very best for sure. This group will miss him definitely.”

Tears were always likely when the end eventually came for the retiring Johnny Sexton.

In a city synonymous with love, art and literature, the thrilling final chapter in the career of one of rugby’s finest creative talents was written.

The storyline – 14 years in the making – was packed with drama and emotion but finished abruptly with a lack of romance and the absence of a fairytale finale.

“It’s small margins and that’s sport,” said Ireland captain Sexton in the aftermath of Saturday evening’s agonising 28-24 loss to New Zealand.

“That’s life. It’s gutting, isn’t it?”

Sexton heads into retirement as arguably his country’s greatest player.

Yet he does so without realising his dream of becoming a world champion following the heartbreak of an all-too-familiar quarter-final elimination on the biggest stage.

The 38-year-old stood hands on hips, head bowed on the Stade de France touchline at the full-time whistle after his fourth such World Cup exit – his nation’s eighth.

Paris, where the influential fly-half spent two seasons with Racing 92 between trophy-laden spells with Leinster, was always destined to provide the backdrop for his last act.

Following successful sojourns in Bordeaux and Nantes, Ireland headed to Saint-Denis for the remainder of their 2023 World Cup fixtures – a minimum of two, a maximum of five.

The formidable All Blacks ensured it would only be three.

Sexton bid adieu by weeping in front of the watching world amid comforting words from his son Luca.

The 2018 world player of the year’s record-breaking Ireland career began against Fiji back in 2009 and brought 118 caps and 1,108 points.

His final months as a professional proved to be a gripping roller-coaster ride which, at times, appeared in danger of derailment.

Multiple injuries and a much-publicised suspension saga had to be overcome en route to France.

 

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Sexton was appointed Ireland skipper in the ashes of the last World Cup, which also ended with a last-eight loss to New Zealand, with some pundits and ex-players suggesting he was already past his best.

 

But the relentless taskmaster with a fiercely-competitive nature and a penchant for rubbing up opponents the wrong way had other ideas.

Following a slightly rocky start to his captaincy during the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, he and the team flourished under the masterful man-management of Andy Farrell.

The summer of 2021 was perhaps a pivotal period.

Sexton – a two-time British and Irish Lion tourist, in 2013 and 2017 – was snubbed by Warren Gatland for the series in South Africa and later confessed it “hurt like hell”.

However, Ireland almost certainly benefited from that setback as the fired-up out-half instead enjoyed time off before returning revitalised.

He guided his country to a Six Nations Triple Crown in 2022 followed by a landmark series success in New Zealand, which propelled Ireland to the top of the global rankings, launched a 17-match winning streak, and led to his third nomination for world player of the year.

Sexton missed out on the award to team-mate Josh van der Flier but continued his renaissance by steering Ireland to a first Grand Slam triumph clinched in Dublin, sealed by a 29-16 win over England.

“It’s unbelievably fitting that in my opinion the best player ever to play for Ireland is able to sign off on a Grand Slam, on St Patrick’s Day, in front of his own crowd,” said head coach Farrell.

Sexton limped from the field that milestone day in what proved to be his final appearance on home soil.

England were always meant to be the opposition for his Aviva Stadium farewell – it just happened five months earlier than anticipated.

Fast-forward to August and the fit-again Sexton was forced to watch from the stands as Ireland defeated Steve Borthwick’s side in a World Cup warm-up fixture.

His three-match ban – punishment for “confrontational and aggressive” behaviour towards referee Jaco Peyper after Leinster’s last-gasp Heineken Champions Cup final loss to La Rochelle – was made more painful by nine-year-old Luca being a team mascot.

Sexton was sidelined for 175 days in total but demonstrated the no-excuses mentality so often championed by Farrell by seamlessly slotting back in at the start of his swansong tournament.

He became his country’s oldest international and leading World Cup scorer with a 24-point haul in the opening win over Romania before a week later taking the overall points record from long-time number 10 rival Ronan O’Gara in the triumph over Tonga.

Electrifying Paris victories against South Africa and Scotland, saluted with rousing renditions of the team’s World Cup anthem – ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries – from tens of thousands of travelling fans, fuelled hope this could be Ireland’s year.

But the dream was crushed by the three-time world champions, leaving a despondent Sexton to hang up his boots amid a cocktail of emotions.

“Everyone runs into camp and never wants to leave – it’s an incredible place to be and that’s what I’ll miss the most,” he said of the environment fostered by Farrell.

Whether Sexton is foremost in the pantheon of Ireland’s all-time greats remains subjective.

That he leaves a lasting legacy and a void which will be extremely difficult to fill is undeniable.

Stephen Kenny’s reign as Republic of Ireland manager reached the point of no return after a comprehensive 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Greece finally killed off any hope of Euro 2024 qualification.

First-half goals from Giorgos Giakoumakis and Giorgos Masouras at a sparsely-populated Aviva Stadium plunged Ireland’s shambolic Group B campaign further into the mire and left Kenny, whose tenure is due to be reviewed next month, with nowhere to turn.

His team has managed to take just three points from its first six games of the campaign – and those from Gibraltar, who they face again in Faro on Monday evening – and for all his claims to have revitalised his squad with young, hungry players, he has not been rewarded with what he needs most – results.

Gus Poyet’s Greece, who already have a play-off place secured via the Nations League, went into the game ranked four places higher than Ireland, but were streets ahead in terms of both potency and solidity, and they will entertain the Netherlands and France in their remaining fixtures with 12 points banked and hope of upsetting the odds.

For Kenny, there is only the prospect of a bloody post mortem amid a mounting chorus of disapproval after a night which ended with a smattering of boos, but more apathy.

The return of 18-year-old Brighton striker Evan Ferguson after he missed September’s double-header against France and the Netherlands through injury had provided cause for optimism, but that dwindled after a bright start in which Will Smallbone forced a fourth-minute save from keeper Odysseas Vlachodimos and Ferguson grazed the foot of his right post with a curling shot.

Central defenders Shane Duffy and Nathan Collins repeatedly found themselves in possession, but with little useful movement ahead of them, and it was home keeper Gavin Bazunu who was called upon to keep out Tasos Bakasetas’ dipping, swerving shot from distance, which he did, but in unconvincing fashion.

The visitors were growing into the game and they silenced the home crowd with 20 minutes gone when Liverpool full-back Kostas Tsimikas was allowed to make ground before crossing for the criminally unmarked Giakoumakis to head powerfully past the helpless Bazunu.

Ogbene saw a snapshot blocked at source and Smallbone curled an effort over from range as the Republic responded, but with Greece working hard to deny them time and space, prompting Ferguson to drop deeper in search of the ball, they struggled to create meaningful opportunities.

Bazunu fielded another Bakasetas shot with some comfort as the Greeks prospered on the break and had to make a fine 37th-minute stop to keep out Dimitris Pelkas’ from Giakoumakis’ clever reverse pass after Petros Mantalos and Masouras had made the most of Ferguson’s failure to retain the ball on halfway.

Kenny’s men were laboured in their efforts to claw themselves back into the game with Josh Cullen firing harmlessly over after Ogbene had floated a cross beyond Ferguson and Duffy heading tamely at Vlachodimos from a Smallbone free-kick, and their plight worsened deep into stoppage time.

Giakoumakis did well to control Petros Mantalos’ steepling clearance on his chest and when Dimitris Pelkas returned his cross into the middle, Masouras pounced to make it 2-0.

Matt Doherty’s unwitting intervention prevented Pelkas’ 53rd-minute shot from creeping inside Bazunu’s left post after Bakasetas had opened Ireland up once again, but the hosts belatedly built up a head of steam.

Jason Knight sent a skidding attempt wide from distance and then saw appeals for a penalty waved away after he had gone down under Masouras’ challenge, and Kenny sent on striker Callum Robinson and winger Mikey Johnston with 20 minutes remaining in a desperate search for inspiration.

Vlachodimos repelled a 83rd-minute Doherty header with his feet and Robinson dragged a shot wide seconds later, but redemption proved beyond Kenny’s side.

Ireland face New Zealand in Paris seeking to reach a maiden semi-final at the Rugby World Cup.

Andy Farrell’s men go into Saturday’s last-eight clash on a remarkable 17-match winning run but face a formidable challenge in the form of the three-time world champions.

Here, the PA news agency highlights some of the major talking points.

Banishing the quarter-final curse

Ireland have topped the world rankings for 15 months and are favourites for the mouth-watering Stade de France showdown. Yet the Irish have never won a World Cup knockout match. Seven times previously they have reached the last eight of the tournament and seven times they have been sent home. The last of those early exits came at the hands of the All Blacks four years ago. Ireland have improved markedly since then and have far greater mental resolve. Farrell’s in-form side will equal the record for consecutive Test wins by a tier one nation (18) by banishing the quarter-final curse. However, standing in their way is one of the toughest challenges in world rugby.

All Blacks out for revenge

Ireland had to wait 111 years for a first Test win over New Zealand. But, having done so in memorable fashion in Chicago seven years ago, the Irish now hold the upper hand in terms of recent meetings. Farrell masterminded a stunning 2-1 tour success over the All Blacks last summer and the stage is set for another unforgettable encounter. New Zealand are not used to losing on home soil and will be out for revenge.  Kiwi full-back Beauden Barrett said: “There are a lot of us who are pretty keen to get one up on them and still we’re hurting from what happened last year.” Ireland’s quest will be aided by the backing of tens of thousands of travelling fans.

About Schmidt

An intriguing sub-plot is the presence of former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in the Kiwi camp. The 58-year-old led Ireland into the last two World Cups before joining his native country’s coaching team last summer after his six-year tenure was emphatically ended by the All Blacks in Tokyo in 2019. New Zealand coach Ian Foster outlined plans to tap into Schmidt’s extensive knowledge of the Irish. Yet veteran Ireland wing Keith Earls played down the merits of doing so, saying: “We genuinely don’t use any of the habits that Joe taught us.”

Return of the Mack

 

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Ireland were nursing a few concerning injury issues following a bruising Pool B finale against Scotland. Yet head coach Farrell has been able to name an unchanged starting XV. Mack Hansen looked to be a major doubt after sitting out training early in the week but took part in Friday’s captain’s run with a heavily-strapped right calf. Fellow wing James Lowe (eye) has also been passed fit. Only lock James Ryan, who sustained a wrist issue against the Scots, is missing from arguably Ireland’s strongest line-up. Lowe, meanwhile, is one of three New Zealand-born players in Ireland’s team, in addition to centre Bundee Aki and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park.

Disciplinary disruption

New Zealand’s preparations have been disrupted by a disciplinary storm in the build-up to the clash. Star wing Mark Telea misses out after being dropped due to a breach of team protocol. Foster insisted the issue was “nothing major” but still felt compelled to punish a player whose emergence on the international scene has been central to the All Blacks’ improvement since their series defeat to Ireland last July. Telea, who is believed to have broken a curfew, has three tries in the tournament, including a double in the opening-night defeat to hosts France. Leicester Fainga’anuku is the man to benefit after claiming a hat-trick in the Pool A thrashing of Uruguay.

Caelan Doris says attempting to send Johnny Sexton into retirement as a world champion is adding to Ireland’s motivation ahead of a mouthwatering quarter-final against New Zealand.

Influential captain Sexton is due to call time on his distinguished career following the Rugby World Cup in France, meaning any match now could be his last.

The 38-year-old fly-half used his personal situation to help fire up his team ahead of last weekend’s pivotal Pool B win over Scotland in Paris.

Ireland are back at Stade de France for a quarter-final showdown with the All Blacks on Saturday evening and number eight Doris acknowledges ‘doing it for Johnny’ is part of the squad’s thinking.

“Yeah, it is,” said the 25-year-old, who was sitting alongside Leinster team-mate Dan Sheehan.

“Even last week, building into Scotland, there was a chance that could be his last ever game, he said that to us as a group. And what an unbelievable player and leader he’s been for Ireland for so many years.

“I think all the players will agree that the standards he sets raise everyone else’s game and he’s almost like having another coach on the pitch.

“He seems to have a bird’s-eye view, he seems to see everything regardless of where you were and catches any mistake.

“You can’t get away with anything with him around, which is obviously a good thing for the most part, except when he’s shouting at you for those few seconds.

“He definitely brings us to another level.

“The way he prepares for a game, he absolutely loves the game and puts everything into it, he’s the utmost professional and he’s been a great role model for the two of us.”

 

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Ireland have won three of four meetings with New Zealand during the reign of head coach Andy Farrell, including last summer’s historic 2-1 tour success.

However, the Irish were thrashed 46-14 by the All Blacks at the same stage of the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

With plenty on the line this weekend, suggestions of a spying scandal were downplayed after a photographer, who has been working on behalf of the Irish Rugby Football Union, attended a New Zealand training session open to members of the media.

Ireland assistant coach Mike Catt was unaware of the incident on Thursday when questioned, before World Rugby’s media operations manager Greg Thomas cut in.

“The rules say yes (it is allowed), as long as they’re standing with the rest of the photographers, they can,” said Thomas, who was chairing the press conference.

Mack Hansen took part in Ireland’s captain’s run in the French capital on Friday morning after sitting out training earlier in the week due to a calf issue sustained against the Scots.

Catt insists the Australia-born wing, whose right leg was heavily strapped, is fit and ready to start, while James Ryan (wrist) and Robbie Henshaw (hamstring) could return to contention at the semi-final stage.

Ireland are favourites for what is expected to be a tight and tense affair against the All Blacks.

 

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Catt says the team have contemplated the prospect of extra-time, which could be followed by 10 minutes of sudden death, and joked that a handful of forwards would be selected in the unlikely event of a kicking competition.

“We have spoken about it,” he said. “The players know who they are: Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Beirne! They’ve definitely put in an extra couple hours of kicking!

“It’s one of those that players are aware of it. It’s a long way to get to that situation.

“You’d like to think in the golden point (sudden death) in 10 minutes one side would take their opportunity and take points.

“The players who are on the pitch know who they are and fingers crossed we put them through the middle.”

Marseille and Paris take centre stage when the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals unfold on Saturday and Sunday.

Four intriguing contests see Ireland meeting New Zealand and France tackling reigning world champions South Africa at Stade de France, while Marseille plays host to Wales against Argentina and England taking on Fiji.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the key quarter-final talking points.

Warren Gatland has worked his magic

After Wales won a solitary game during last season’s Six Nations, any prospect of them becoming World Cup semi-finalists seven months later could have been described as fanciful in the extreme. But head coach Warren Gatland has come up trumps once again in his second stint at the helm, transforming Wales through an unbeaten four-match run in their pool, collecting 19 points out of a possible 20 and going into Saturday’s clash against the Pumas as firm favourites. It would be Wales’ third semi-final appearance in the last four World Cup campaigns under Gatland if they get there, and Argentina have their work cut out to stop them, especially given patchy form during the group phase when they qualified as Pool D runners-up behind England.

In-form Ireland to banish last-eight curse?

Ireland have topped the world rankings for 15 months and are favourites for Saturday’s mouthwatering Paris showdown with three-time world champions New Zealand. Yet the Irish have never won a World Cup knockout match. Seven times previously they have reached the last eight of the tournament and seven times they have been sent home. The last of those early exits came at the hands of the formidable All Blacks four years ago. Head coach Andy Farrell has masterminded three wins from four meetings since that 46-14 hammering in Tokyo, including a historic tour triumph on New Zealand soil last summer, and instilled great mental resolve in his players. His team will equal the record for consecutive Test wins by a tier one nation (18) by banishing Ireland’s quarter-final curse. However, standing in their way is one of the toughest challenges in world rugby and an All Blacks side intent on revenge.

Pantomime villains England

It will be akin to shooting Bambi if England are to reach the semi-finals due to Fiji’s status as darlings of the World Cup, willed on by neutrals who desire the fairy-tale scenario of a Pacific Islands team progressing into the latter stages of the tournament. Number eight Billy Vunipola has acknowledged his side are “public enemy number one”, but points out that historical anti-English sentiment means they are well versed in fighting against popular opinion. On the favourites’ side is that the vast numbers of red rose fans who have followed their team in France will turn the Stade Velodrome into a home ground. Fiji, after pushing Wales to the limit in their opening match, have struggled to regain such fluency and it could prove a game too far for them.

French flair or Springboks power?

The second of the weekend’s two box-office Paris quarter-finals pits the expectant hosts against the defending champions. Whoever prevails on Sunday will view it as a huge obstacle overcome in their quest to win the tournament. France will have the backing of a frenzied home support sensing an opportunity for their team to claim the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time. Les Bleus have not lost on home soil since Scotland defeated them in Paris behind closed doors in a Six Nations match two-and-a-half years ago. The Springboks – chasing World Cup glory for a fourth time – entered the tournament in scintillating form and began with an impressively comfortable win over Scotland before their momentum was halted slightly by a narrow loss to Ireland in their penultimate pool match. The contrast of French flair and the ferocious physicality of South Africa promises to deliver an epic contest to conclude the weekend spectacular.

Conor Murray believes New Zealand’s loss is Ireland’s gain as “world-class” trio Bundee Aki, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe bid to give their native country serious cause for regret.

Centre Aki, scrum-half Gibson-Park and wing Lowe will face the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup for the first time after being selected to start Saturday’s quarter-final showdown in Paris.

The three New Zealand-born backs qualified for Ireland on residency grounds and have become key performers for Andy Farrell’s side, including helping secure a landmark tour success over the Kiwis last summer.

Murray expects their personal circumstances to provide an extra edge to their performances at Stade de France.

“Those three boys are so important to our squad,” he said.

“What they did, taking the chance to come over here and start a new life for themselves and prove themselves, all three of them have really done so.

“They’re three world-class players who we’re really going to rely on heavily and have performed unbelievably well in this competition.

“It hasn’t really been mentioned, the New Zealand thing. They’re part of our Irish team now and they’re really important to us.

“I’m sure there’s a part of them, that little bit extra that they want to get one over on their place of birth but they’re fully part of our Irish squad now.”

Gibson-Park and Lowe each represented the Maori All Blacks prior to their respective moves to Leinster, before winning maiden Ireland caps in 2020.

Connacht player Aki made his Ireland debut in 2017 but missed Ireland’s last-eight World Cup loss to New Zealand in 2019 through suspension.

 

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The 33-year-old, who four years ago was sent off against Samoa – his parents’ native country, has been one of the standout performers in France.

“I hate saying it but he’s been playing the rugby of his life,” Murray, who lost his starting role to Gibson-Park, said of Aki.

“He can come across as a bit of a messer or jolly fella but behind the scenes Bundee is incredible.

“The level of detail, he’s always on the computers and always trying to figure things out, so he’s actually a smart fella, believe it or not.”

Ireland’s tens of thousands of travelling fans celebrated each of their Pool B wins with rousing renditions of ‘Zombie’ by Irish band The Cranberries.

“Bundee thinks they’re singing ‘Bundee, Bundee’,” Murray added. “They’re definitely not!”

Munster number nine Murray has 111 Ireland caps, is a veteran of three British and Irish Lions tours and is playing at his fourth World Cup.

The 34-year-old, who will begin on the bench against the All Blacks, is preparing for the biggest game of his career as his country strive to reach a maiden semi-final.

 

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“It would mean everything,” he said. “On the outside it’s obviously a talking point that we’ve never got there and within the group we think this is a different team and the capabilities are different.

“This weekend is the biggest game I’ve ever played and it’s the same for everyone in the group.

“To get through that would be a huge, huge moment; a huge milestone.

“Breaking the quarter-final isn’t something we talk about. But with the special group we have, it’s something we’re chasing and would absolutely love to do for ourselves and the fans here and at home.

“I can’t get away from how hard it’s going to be, how difficult a task it is, but it would mean the world to all of us to get to that next stage.”

Murray has lined up 14 times against New Zealand for Ireland and the Lions.

He has scored four tries across those outings, including in his nation’s maiden success over the All Blacks in 2016 in Chicago.

“I’ve played against the All Blacks where we’ve beaten them, but when we play (again) they’re a completely different animal,” he said.

“When I started off my international career playing against New Zealand was really daunting and it still is, but did we really expect to beat them is questionable, whereas now there’s definitely a bit more belief.”

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