The All Blacks have wasted no time in lobbing a few grenades among the Irish press pack, with Steve Hansen shoving the issue of Conor Murray's fitness front and centre at a hastily-arranged press conference on Sunday night. After their training at Blanchardstown today, the world champions went at it again: this time their assistant coach targeted Ireland's other half-back.
Johnny Sexton yesterday stressed that Ireland would need to stay on the right of referee Wayne Barnes on Saturday, and given the added dimension of Barnes' poor standing among rugby folk in New Zealand (the referee and his officials had the temerity to miss Damien Traille's forward pass to Freddie Michalak for a try in the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final), these comments were put to the All Blacks' assistant Ian Foster.
"I'm not sure why he says that, Barnsey is a great ref. Johnny seems to give them [referees] a bit of advice on the park too so I’m sure he will carry on doing that", came the reply.
Sexton has developed a reputation for being particularly narky with referees, most notably when he assumed the captaincy in Peter O'Mahony's absence during the third Test in Australia during the summer, telling Pascal Gauzere that "I know you hate me, but you have to talk to me". Sexton explained the provenance of the confrontation in August, saying that he had overheard touch judge Paul Williams telling Gauzere to ignore any of Sexton's in-game protestations.
Foster's comments will not only amplify how Sexton deals with Barnes, but also how Barnes will deal with Sexton. Wales' Ross Moriarty claimed last month that Sexton gets special treatment from referees, and these comments were echoed last week by Eddie Jones. "If he [Owen Farrell] was Johnny Sexton, then we'd be able to complain about him, but because he's Owen Farrell he's allowed to be hit late".
Speaking yesterday, Sexton responded to Jones' citing of his name ahead of England's clash with the All Blacks. “I don’t know how I was mentioned at an England New Zealand press conference. That still baffles me. I didn’t think we were playing England until February".
That Sexton is now the target for the All Blacks' media game is a testament to how seriously he is taken by Saturday's opposition.