Sexton on swapping jerseys with Beauden Barrett and the ultimate test against the All Blacks
‘NOT NORMALLY, NO,‘ laughs Johnny Sexton.
Against the All Blacks, ordinary and normal are never applicable terms.
Those iconic silver ferns are on the agenda because November is almost here, and while Ireland have a trans-Atlantic trip and Tests against a rejuvenated Argentina and an Irish-influenced USA, the shadow of New Zealand ultimately looms largest.
It always does.
“Before you play them you know it’s going to be the toughest game of the season, always,” said Sexton as he announced a partnership with Mace.
Dan Carter shakes hands with Johnny Sexton after the November 2010 Test. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
It was a lesson Sexton first learned in 2010, twice. After meeting the World Cup-hungry Kiwis on tour in June, he was the fresh-faced starting 10 when they came to the Aviva Stadium for a return leg in November.
“I vomited at half-time,” says Sexton. His boot and a brilliant multi-phase Stephen Ferris try had pushed Ireland to a 13-9 lead after 32 minutes.
Then the All Blacks did as the All Blacks tend to do. A turnover, a counter-attack and a ferocious series of carries that brought the visitors a 13-19 lead by half-time.
Even in the most intense of international contests, emptying the contents of your stomach during the interval is not exactly par for the course.
“It was just an incredible pace to the game, just every collision was ferocious. Every collision was like the first collision of the game.”
Sexton’s eyes are wide open now. Things change over the course of eight years. So while Steve Hansen’s side remain the world-leading standard-bearers and Dublin is still waiting on an Irish win over New Zealand, the gap has undoubtedly closed to extremely narrow margins.
Sexton moves in after Gordon D’Arcy and Ma’a Nonu collide. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Sexton can reflect on Chicago and the Lions tour as evidence that the world’s number one team are beatable. And this modern iteration of Ireland won’t balk when the game hits blistering pace.
“I think our levels of fitness now, and our levels of preparation, have gone up a lot since then.”
“We’ve never beaten them in Ireland, so it would be pretty special to be on the first Irish team to beat them here. And I’m sure the crowd, everyone is looking for tickets and the thought of it… so as players we need to concentrate on the first couple of games but at the same time it’s going to be a pretty special occasion, I think.”
Special too as the 17 November Test will bring the world’s two best out-halves face to face. Sexton and Beauden Barrett are both Adidas athletes, but while they have gotten into close scrapes during Tests, their off-field interactions have been fleeting.
“I don’t know him really that well, I spoke to him after we played in Chicago and that was the only time I’ve ever swapped jerseys with the All Blacks.”
The only time? Why so, Johnny?
“There were a few things where they refused to swap jerseys for different reasons, so I never really wanted to put myself in that situation where you walk in…”
Sexton didn’t want anyone going cap in hand and coming away with one arm as long as the other, basically.
He understands that the Kiwis have their reasons for holding tight to the fabled black kit, though it may be telling that it took a defeat to shake them out of the habit.
“I’m not sure, they probably have people they need to give it to, there’s probably different reasons they want to keep it, or whatever. That was the only one I have, and look, he’s a nice guy, world player of the year the last two years in a row, he’s the guy to catch.”
Sexton attempts to stop Barrett scoring at the Aviva in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
It’s put to the Ireland 10 that a blend of him and Barrett might just make for the perfect out-half.
“If I was fast, basically, is what you’re saying?”
Or perhaps if Barrett’s place-kicking was a tad more predictable.
“I think he gets a bad… even during that Lions tour he got slated for the second Test when he kicked seven from 10 on a windy, wet night in Wellington,” argues Sexton.
“You know, the game against South Africa (also in Wellington), he only missed a few. But, like, it’s one of the hardest stadiums in the world to kick in, the wind can play absolute havoc. I’ve had sessions there where I’ve barely got a kick.
“So I think he gets a bit of unfair criticism in his kicking, and if you actually look at his statistics or whatever you want to look at, he’s a very good kicker and he’s a world class player. To score four tries in a game (v Australia) is incredible, and he had one disallowed as well, so he had potential to score five.”
Of course, there is a lot of rugby to be played before the world’s first and second-ranked teams come face to face on Lansdowne Road. Sexton hopes to see Chicago again when Ireland travel to face Italy next week, but his more likely next outing will be against Argentina on 10 November, the same day New Zealand face a long-awaited meeting with Eddie Jones’ England.
As ever, the forces in the north and south will be meeting at opposite ends of their respective seasons.
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“Yeah it’s always hard, isn’t it? You never play (southern hemisphere) teams at the same time of the season as yourselves, so look of course they’re going to be tired after a long season. But we were tired going to Australia and we managed to pull ourselves together and put in performances that did enough to win a Test series.
“They’ve got a really good player welfare system as well, so most of them will only have played the same amount of games that we played at the end of last season, around that early 20s mark.
“I think they’ll be fresher than other teams and be ready to go.”
“It is our last chance to play against them before the World Cup and if things go well in the pool, we could have a game against South Africa. But that go either way and we could end up playing them (New Zealand) in the quarter-finals.
“So it’s important that we’re able to match it with them.”
These days, they normally come pretty damn close.
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud
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