The 'freak' against the 'classy competitor'
YEAR-END SPOTLIGHT: Two of the great flyhalves of the modern era could go head-to-head in Dublin on Saturday.
Johnny Sexton labels New Zealand great Beauden Barrett as a “freak of a runner”, whilst the Irish captain’s fellow Test centurion says his rival flyhalf is “all class.”
This mutual respect, though, will be set aside should 2018 World Player of the Year Sexton face Barrett – twice World Player of the Year – in Saturday’s one-off Test at Lansdowne Road.
Barrett, who brought up his Test century in the whipping of Wales last month, has been alternating with Richie Mo’unga for the flyhalf spot and could also slot in at fullback.
Sexton, fresh from a stand-out performance on his 100th cap in the 60-5 rout of Japan last Saturday, is expecting to see Barrett line-up.
“He is an outstanding player,” said Sexton at his press conference on Tuesday.
“Whether he plays at flyhalf or full-back he brings his strengths to the game.
“He is a freak of a runner. He has so many skills, his kicking game, his kick passes and his chipping.
“He is a strong guy, picks a good pass and is a guy we have to look out for. I guess Beauden will be in the team somewhere and he is obviously a threat.”
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‘A clear competitor’
Barrett and his brothers, including fellow All Blacks Jordi and Scott, owe their outstanding ball-handling skills in part to playing Gaelic football when their father Kevin took a farm manager’s job in Ireland in 2000.
If things had turned out differently it might well have been Barrett and not another New Zealand-born flyhalf Joey Carbery who became the number one challenger to Sexton.
However, from a distance, Barrett has seen how the 36-year-old playmaker makes his team tick, guiding them to two historic wins over the All Blacks in the past five years.
As welcome as those two victories were, the All Blacks put the Irish in their place when it mattered in the 2019 Rugby World Cup hammering them 46-14 in the quarter-finals.
That defeat still hurts Sexton and Barrett having watched his display against Japan – he scored 16 points including a try before being taken off with 20 minutes remaining – is mustard keen to face him.
“He’s so influential for their team and he’s all class so of course, you love these match-ups,” said 30-year-old Barrett at the New Zealand press conference on Tuesday.
“You don’t get too caught up in it but you do appreciate who your opponent is and the team you’re playing.
“He brought up his 100th cap last week and it was evident that his team got up for him and they put in a really good performance.”
Barrett said he likes the way Sexton is never satisfied in just passing and letting his teammates take it from there.
“One of the strengths of his game is his ability to get second touches post-pass, and follow up and get another touch like that,” he said.
“There is a lot to admire about him and the way he plays.
“In terms of his mentality, he’s a clear competitor. He loves to win, he loves to get amongst the physicality and he’s a huge part of their team and how they play.”