Sexton and Biggar set to let sparks fly until the final whistle is blown

Welsh outhalf believes he and his Ireland counterpart have many similarities

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton talks to Wales’s Dan Biggar   after their 2020 Guinness Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton talks to Wales’s Dan Biggar after their 2020 Guinness Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

The moment it happened, in Johnny Sexton’s smile there was the hint of a wince. But Sexton has learned to take the heartfelt insults with a grin, or, perhaps a smirk and gritted teeth.

Either way, the launch of the Six Nations championship on Wednesday was an early test of the Irish captain’s cool diplomacy. He passed.

Speaking to all of the six captains in a quick-fire round of comments on the majesty of the tournament over the decades, the host moved to the Irish man.

In a clunky shift from baby-faced Michele Lamaro, the new 23-year-old Italian captain, to the established 36-year-old Irish captain, continuity man landed a delightfully pointed uppercut.

“I’m sure your first memories of the Six Nations championship were before Michele was even born,” he said to Sexton.

Factually, he might have been right. Sexton in the old Lansdowne Road at 13 years old was certainly a possibility. That wasn’t the point. The line was done for laughs and could also have been directed at 32-year-old Dan Biggar.

The Northampton outhalf and recently appointed Welsh captain stepped up when Alun Wyn Jones had surgery on his left shoulder following Wales’ game against New Zealand in the autumn internationals.

Sexton’s view was also sought on Biggar’s installation. The mood music there was two driven outhalf captains in their 30s who like to talk to referees and to each other.

This time Sexton broadly smiled before delivering his assessment of the Welsh captain. “Calm and collected like myself,” he said cheekily borrowing a phrase from an earlier line Biggar had delivered.

Biggar, putting on his best Welsh captain’s face, shifted slightly in his seat.

“I’m sure there will be one or two cross words during the game. But we will be fine afterwards,” he replied. He later expanded. Explaining that while the two will likely spark off each other, their feud lasts only for the duration of the match.

‘Will to win’

“Whenever I get asked who has been the most difficult person to play against in the last 10-12 years, Johnny’s name would be near the very, very top,” said Biggar. “Very similar to myself really in the drive, the will to win, scrapping for absolutely everything on the field. It’s testament to him in terms of how well he managed to handle himself and keep his form going into mid-30s. I’ve a huge amount of time for Johnny. There are few people more deserving of a hundred caps in international rugby.

“We may not be the best of friends for 80 minutes on the pitch . . . quite narky and at each other a little bit. Away from the field I have a huge amount of time for him.”

Neither of the two players are anything if not judicious and blazingly competitive, with Biggar probably winning the pre-kicking psyche routine with his “The Biggarena” – named after Los del Rio’s 1995 hit, Macarena, another cultural experience available to both players before Lamero was born.

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is tackled by Wales’s Dan Biggar. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is tackled by Wales’s Dan Biggar. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

It was Biggar who recently joked on the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast that Saturday’s referee Jaco Peyper will be dreading having him and Sexton in his ear for the opening encounter.

Being given the captaincy is like being handed a licence to talk not just to his players but also the official. Peyper can expect that in stereo, from one side with a Welsh lilt and the other a more than direct Dublin accent.

“I saw an article Johnny Sexton did,” said Biggar. “For the first game Jaco Peyper has got me and him. So I bet he is having a few sleepless nights.

“It’ll all be done in the right way. I’m normally quite cool, calm and collected on the field anyway. It’ll be a challenge, of course it will, because my own nature is very fiery and competitive.

“For me, it’s kind of a double-edged sword because I’ve got to be me as a player, which is of course a massively important part of the game. I need to be on a level where I’m flying around the pitch and emotionally on edge.

“Only time will tell if it’ll come across right but I’m going to buy into it as best I can.”

Biggar’s job in Dublin next weekend will be to help turn the Welsh ship, while Sexton’s is arguably to keep the Irish one sailing in the same smooth direction as the Autumn Series determined.

Although Wales are coming into the Six Nations as reigning champions, their injury-smashed squad are not arriving with anything like the international leverage that would suggest last year’s winners could again be this year’s top dog.

Wales, who won two and lost two in the autumn, know that Ireland play best when Sexton is in high-tempo, game management mode, whether it is running plays or commentary or both. There is also little doubt that part of what makes him tick is commitment to everything in his realm.

In the first half of Ireland’s defeat of the All Blacks last November, he was at his garrulous best when he became involved in a lively dialogue exchange with English referee Luke Pearce, complaining about an earlier passage of play.

“I don’t tell your team how to play moves,” the younger 34-year-old Pearce said to Sexton, telling him to back off. “We’re doing our jobs.”

As he back-pedalled, Sexton insisted on having the final word. Then, arriving on the scene, New Zealand’s replacement hooker Dane Coles piped up, all of it clearly picked up by the referee’s microphone.

Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar during the British & Irish Lions tour To New Zealand in 2017. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar during the British & Irish Lions tour To New Zealand in 2017. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“Christ, he’s a mouthy c***, isn’t he?” said Coles as Pearce instructed him to calm down. Coles was only on the field because starting hooker Codie Taylor was serving 10 minutes in the sin bin for a high hit on Sexton.

“I’m happy to admit that I’m far from the most naturally gifted player,” Biggar told WalesOnline last June. “You could probably argue that 90 per cent of the players in my position are more naturally talented than me. But to make up for that, I feel like I need that edge, drive, competitiveness and determination. If I’m at that kind of level then I’m gaining a lot more from myself and hopefully gaining something for the team as well.

“If I flip that and look at the 90 per cent that are more talented than me, I’ve got to make sure that I’m working a little bit harder than those boys or having more of an edge.

“I’m happy to admit there are way more talented players. And it’s been far from plain sailing, there have been lots of ups and downs but it’s just that resilience and mental strength to keep going which I’ve been quite proud of. I want to be absolutely brilliant at everything.”

On Wednesday, Biggar repeated his faith in himself being himself. It is something Sexton has articulated, which is that Sexton wouldn’t be Sexton if he did not hold high expectations for himself and those players around him, if he didn’t have words for referees and opposing outhalves.

Wales outhalf Dan Biggar speaks to his Ireland counterpart Johnny Sexton after their Six Nations match in March 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Wales outhalf Dan Biggar speaks to his Ireland counterpart Johnny Sexton after their Six Nations match in March 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Demands

In both captains’ minds there is no avoiding that and more often than not the inner demands and their sense of perfection can, even in a team game, make the difference.

“When Wayne [coach Pivac] asked me to do the [captain] job last week I said to Wayne I’m hugely proud to do it. But I did say to him I didn’t want it to change who I am as a person or a character and Wayne was totally on board with that and didn’t want that to change.

“I suppose from my end, if my attitude and my will to win and fight for every scrap of possession or every moment of the game, if I can get that to rub off on one, two, five, six [players] whatever it is, I’m hoping that is a positive outcome.

“I’ve seen the captain as a tag rather than a burden. I’m going to try and be exactly who I am around the group. That’s ultimately what I want to be.”

Biggar was named as one of three outhalves on the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand. But he was not involved against the All Blacks and watched all three Test matches play out from the stands. Owen Farrell started the first Test with Sexton earning the pivot position for the last two games with the England captain moving to the centre.

Last summer with Sexton not involved Biggar played against Japan where he kicked four from four. He also started in all three Test matches against South Africa, the Lions winning the first and losing the second and third, where Biggar came off injured in the 11th minute and was replaced by Scotland’s Finn Russell.

“I need to be at a level where I am emotionally on edge but obviously there has to be a line,” says Biggar. “I’m really looking forward to really testing myself. Only time will tell if it will come across right. But I’m going to fly into it the best I can.”

Both will fly into it, with Sexton now perhaps more accepting of the obvious truths and even able to grin and bear the age quips. Why not, he’s still there.

“I’m not sure the refs are going to be too happy having to deal with me and him. But there will be two of us in it anyway,” he said. “He’s a good choice. He’s a leader. He’s a Test match player.”

That’s where the compliments end.

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