Johnny Sexton knows beating the best could crown him the best
Ireland outhalf will come up against fellow player of the year nominee Beauden Barrett
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland prepares to take a penalty during the Test match wi over Argentina. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
The World Player of the Year trophy is handed out November 25th in the rugby hotbed of Monte Carlo. A prestigious venue for an award that many Irish people feel was stolen from their Brian O’Driscoll’s grasp in 2009, when Richie McCaw got it, a scenario that may well reoccur in 2018.
Ironically enough, O’Driscoll and McCaw are judges at the Cote D’Azur party.
Beauden Barrett’s drop goal at Twickenham could, inconceivably from a green-tinted perspective, tip the individual global accolade his way for a third consecutive year. This despite Johnny Sexton guiding Ireland to the Grand Slam – with a fairly important 48 metre drop goal in Paris – and Leinster back to the European summit.
All told, Saturday night at the Aviva stadium offers the ideal showdown (with fellow nominee Reiko Ioane prowling the left touchline).
“Good decision at the time to take the lead,” said Sexton of Barrett’s first drop at goal in 71 games for the All Blacks. “In those conditions even a three point lead was massive. It snuck them ahead and showed he had it in the arsenal. He didn’t pull it out in Wellington against South Africa but he had it in there. It was a good drop goal.”
Identified as a solitary weakness in the world champion’s make-up, Barrett slipping into the pocket to alter the direction of New Zealand versus England under torrential downpour dispels talk of obvious vulnerability.
“They relied on drop goals in the last World Cup, didn’t they?”
Different outhalf (Dan Carter was formally named best player on the planet in 2005, 2012 and 2015).
“Yeah, different outhalf, but I would say (Barrett) stays behind to practice drop goals as much as he does the rest of his kicking.”
That’s how Ireland and New Zealand might be separated. Off the kicking tee, the odd drop goal and tactical punts. Sexton’s realm of expertise. Barrett being the ultimate running pivot.
“2015 probably highlighted the importance of drop goals come big games but in tighter games he hasn’t really had to pull it out because they haven’t really had games when they are reliant on drop goals, thus far.”
Except September’s defeat to the Springboks when New Zealand coach Steve Hansen immediately conceded a tactical flaw existed by calling up Crusaders outhalf Richie Mo’unga, mentored by Ronan O’Gara, to their bench for the remainder of the Rugby Championship and this European tour.
Really, how Barrett and Sexton perform this weekend should settle their individual duel while addressing rising talk about Ireland challenging New Zealand’s number one ranking (they can’t be knocked off top spot after controversially beating England).
In November 2016 Barrett’s sprinter’s pace exposed Conor Murray before a stunning offload secured victory during their infamous revenge mission to Dublin two weeks after defeat in Chicago.
“In some ways it was a sign of respect,” said the 33-year-old.
The vicious nature of that meeting lingers. There was an Israel Dagg shoulder to CJ Stander’s face and Robbie Henshaw was laid out by Sam Cane while Malakai Fekitoa’s feet off the ground, swinging arm around the head and neck of Simon Zebo only resulted in a yellow card from referee Jaco Peyper.
“For the 19 minutes I lasted it was physical yeah,” smiled Sexton. “Look, it’s always a very physical game.
“I think that one probably went over the edge, didn’t it? But I think that game changed a lot for rugby going forward. That was a massive moment regarding high tackles, in what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. After that, I feel, things changed. You wouldn’t get away with that now.”
The result saw Barrett storm to his first world player of the year award, a prize that’s resided in the All Black camp, besides Thierry Dusautoir magnificence in 2011, since the decision-makers decreed that McCaw had done more than O’Driscoll despite the 2009 Grand Slam and European success.
“It wouldn’t be on my list,” Sexton stated. “It’s an incredibly prestigious award so of course you think about it but I have to try and not think about it because it can be a distraction.”
But it matters because the name called out in Monaco will probably know he got the better of his nemesis at Lansdowne Road.
Such an award silences loud comments of the few. Eddie Jones might even stop trying to deflect from English defects when it comes to referees affording Sexton more protection than Owen Farrell.
“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.”
Australian referee Nic Berry addressed the targeting of Sexton in the second half against Argentina when calling upon Pumas captain Pablo Matera.
“Pablo, I don’t want any more hits off the ball,” Berry instructed as Sexton climbed to his feet to miss the resulting penalty. He finished with five goals from seven shots in a shaky enough kicking display.
Barrett’s shining brilliance was brought into question after a sloppy two from six during defeat to the Springboks.
Such errors are highlighted because of both men’s consistent excellence. Yet Sexton doesn’t see Barrett or Mo’unga, he sees opportunity to topple New Zealand for a third time.
“For me they have always been number one. It’s always been about trying to catch them. I’ve been lucky enough to play on a couple of teams that have done that. Now we want to stay up there with them. Not be a flash in the pan team but every time we play against them give them a tough game.”