FUKUOKA, 14 Oct - Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton says criticism of the team's Rugby World Cup 2019 performances is "strange" as confidence rises within the squad ahead of the quarter-final against New Zealand at Tokyo Stadium on Saturday.
"There's been some negativity around us and we'd feel that's been pretty strange," said Sexton. The 34-year-old was dismissive of comparisons made - after those sub-par performances - with Ireland’s terrible showing in the 2007 tournament.
"It's just something that we get a sense of," he said. "You get texts saying, 'Keep the head up, we're still behind you' and you get a feeling that there are some things out there that aren't great.
"We know things weren't great but it’s funny some people trying to compare things to 2007 when they just scraped past Namibia - and we have just beaten Russia 35-0. How there can be comparisons there? I'm not quite sure - and in totally different conditions."
Taking a positive point of view, the veteran playmaker said Ireland can take some belief from their 2016 and 2018 wins over New Zealand.
"We know they’re the best team in the world. We can take a little bit of confidence from the fact that we have got that monkey off our back and we’ve done it a couple of times, which gives us that belief."
There was also a sense from the current World Player of the Year that beating New Zealand in the knockout stages of a World Cup would be perhaps the greatest moment of a long and decorated career.
"It will be very special if we can get a win because often in a November series they’re tired, they’ve got holidays coming up and maybe they’ve had a little bit of an excuse. But this week they’ll be throwing their best at it out there. We've got to concentrate on getting the best version of the Irish team out there and we'll see if that's good enough."
There were signs in the victory against Samoa on Saturday that Sexton, having recovered from some niggling injuries, is returning to the form that made him arguably the world’s best fly-half less than a year ago.
Self-belief is not something he has ever been short on, but Sexton is also relentless in his quest for improvement.
"You never feel too far away from your best - you just feel that sometimes things just don’t go your way in one regard or other, a niggle or two. I never lost confidence in what I can do and I don’t think many tens do lose confidence," he said.
"When you go through bad patches you know that they're part and parcel and you’ll come out the other side. I was happy with some parts (against Samoa), other parts I’d like to brush up on before New Zealand. I'll need to play better on Saturday - and we all will - to get the right result.”
If there is a key difference between this quarter-final and others in which Ireland have flopped – notably against Argentina in 2015 and Wales in 2011 - it is that they go into it as underdogs.
"We're building nicely, we haven't hit our best performance yet and we need to get close to that to get the right result on Saturday," said Sexton.