Dublin (AFP) - Ireland captain Johnny Sexton mounted a strong defence of his long-time half-back partner Conor Murray on Thursday, saying his top class performances have made him a 'marked man'.
Scrum-half Murray will line up with Sexton for a record-extending 58th time in an Ireland Test on Saturday -- they broke Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer's record of 55 at the World Cup -- against Six Nations Grand Slam holders Wales.
Murray, though, has come under increasing pressure due to the form of Ulster's John Cooney and a drop off in his since returning from a neck injury last year.
However, coach Andy Farrell has retained faith in the 30-year-old Munster star both for the edgy opening 19-12 victory over Scotland and now the Welsh.
"Conor has got scope to snipe but in international rugby it does not always open up like it does in Pro 14 or the European Champions Cup," Sexton told reporters at Dublin's training base.
"Last week was a proper Test match, but the biggest problem for Conor is he has ripped up the All Blacks (historic first win over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016) then you become a marked man.
"He has played really well against Ospreys and last week against the Scots and I am sure he will play well on Saturday."
Sexton had no trouble with his own form last Saturday contributing all of Ireland's points including the only try of the match.
However, the 34-year-old fly-half will be keen to avenge last year's 25-7 loss to Wales in Cardiff which saw the Welsh clinch the Grand Slam -- a prize the Irish had claimed in 2018.
"Yes, it still stings," said Sexton.
"We were going for the championship they were going for the Grand Slam and we got well beaten.
"Any time you lose in an Ireland jersey it does not leave you."
Sexton expects a slightly different Wales style of play this time round under Wayne Pivac after a dozen years of facing the men in red under Warren Gatland.
"It will be new playing against them," he said.
"We are so used to playing against Warren and his way of playing.
"I have seen already some ideas they have.
"We played against Scarlets and we have struggled, we lost in a Pro14 semi-final (2017) to them and Munster then lost to them in the final."
Sexton said he is anticipating a no holds barred clash in a duel that has had plenty of tetchy moments down the years.
"They are spicy (Ireland v Wales matches) on the pitch but not off it," he said.
"I played with a lot of the Welsh guys in the Lions and have great relationships with them.
"We are a proud nation and they are too and no one wants to take a backward step."