Johnny Sexton says Ireland must not let their sense of duty to raise the country’s spirits weigh them down when they face Italy in their Six Nations clash on Saturday.
The captain and other players have spoken about their responsibility to boost morale, with Ireland set to become the first EU country to return to coronavirus lockdown from Wednesday.
The Italy game is the first of two Six Nations matches for Andy Farrell’s men that were postponed earlier this year.
A bonus-point win would send Ireland top of the table. They would have a point advantage over England and France, who host the Irish in the climax to the tournament on October 31, while England travel to Italy.
Sexton, the 2018 world player of the year, said the players must not allow the difficult situation in the country to dominate their thoughts.
“That’s the balance that we have to find,” the fly-half said on Tuesday. “We don’t want it to be a burden.
“You guys are asking about the duty we feel, but we don’t want that to weigh us down.
“We want to use it as an opportunity. We’re privileged to go and do our thing in front of the country — that’s why you start playing the game as a kid… so we can’t let that be a massive pressure on us.”
– Worlds apart –
Sexton, who is hoping to put a disappointing performance in the Six Nations loss to England behind him, said Ireland would not throw caution to the wind against the Italians.
The 35-year-old said Ireland would have to be pragmatic and not lose sight of the ultimate goal, which was to win the match, given the Six Nations could be decided by the narrowest of margins.
“There’s a little bit of an extra onus on us this week,” he said. “We need to win the game first and foremost, that’s most important because it (the title) could come down to points difference and bonus points.
“That will come later in the game, but we need to try and win the game first.
“Putting on a show isn’t something we’ve talked about, but putting on a good performance is something we’re conscious of and want to do.”
Sexton said the atmosphere within the camp now was “worlds apart” compared with when the Six Nations began in February.
“The most normal thing we’re doing at the moment is rugby training,” he said. “We don’t have to wear masks, we can be around each other outside.
“You go into meetings (indoors) and it’s masks on, two metres. We have most of our meetings on the pitch because it’s outdoors.
“There were fears that ‘if the country went to level five would we be allowed play at all? So we’re very grateful for the chance to be able to continue as is.”