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Dublin: 21 °C Monday 15 July, 2019

'He's not afraid of pulling the trigger': Barrett sees a lot of familiar traits in Sexton

The world player of the year nominees will go head-to-head on Saturday.

LIKE LIGHT AND shade, two sides of a coin or one man’s trash being another’s treasure, Beauden Barrett calls the Test on 23 June, 2012 in Hamilton ‘the highlight of his career’.

For Irish Rugby, it was a Black day.

Beauden Barrett Beauden Barrett thoroughly enjoyed sticking the knife in Ireland on his debut. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Yes, that’s Mike Ross and Rory Best out of focus in the picture. A week on from pushing the reigning world champions to the pin of their collar in Christchurch, Ireland were already feeling the backlash before Steve Hansen decided to unleash a future World Player of the Year on them to finish the job.

Barrett wound up converting three of New Zealand’s nine tries in that not-nearly-forgettable-enough 60 – 0 trouncing. Introduced in place of Aaron Cruden midway through the first-half it was also Barrett’s first brush with Jonathan Sexton.

“Ronan O’Gara was playing back then, a guy I looked up to in my younger years” says Barrett, citing the finishing out-half as a measure of the water that has passed under the bridge in six long years since. Ireland have worked hard to avoid a repeat showing of a night when there was a chasm in class and belief between the sides.

“We have seen the great development of the Irish game. I guess that’s on the back of some pretty good coaches as well.”

Sexton is not a coach in name, but his character means he is a core driver and leader of any team he plays in. With a Grand Slam, a double for Leinster and a series win in Australia claimed already this year, he also poses a threat to Barrett’s bid for a third straight World Rugby Player of the Year award – not to mention the extension of a seven-year Kiwi stranglehold on the gong.

Beauden Barrett scoring a try despite the tackle from Johnny Sexton 19/11//2016 Sexton attempts to deny Barrett a try in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While the rest of us can get excited about the out-half head-to-head amid memories of their literal tussle in Dublin two years ago, Barrett insists he doesn’t “get too caught-up on one-on-one match-ups.” But he sees a lot to like in the man he engaged in a rare jersey trade in Chicago.

“He’s a great player. very skillful, very influential for the Irish team. We are both similar. we are both lucky to be on the back of two great packs and two great nines,” says Barrett of Sexton

Johnny, he’s not afraid of pulling the trigger. He can execute some pretty good plays. He likes to give the ball space. So I guess we are similar in that space be it a cross-field kick or a big pass… yeah, he just has a great set of skills.”

Barrett suggests that his own skill-set is still expanding. Indeed, after 71 Tests without kicking what his old friends in the Meath GAA club of Ballinacree might refer to as points from play, he has taken a sudden liking to drop-goals on this European tour.

“drop-goal,” he corrects with a knowing smile.

While not the first quality you look for in an out-half, tackling is big part of what sets both Barrett and Sexton apart too. The 27-year-old Hurricane has some incredible chase-down try-saving tackles in his highlight reel (see his 2013 foiling of Willie le Roux, or last year’s shut-down of Stuart Hogg’s late break and with it unbridled celebration in Edinburgh) but he also is well capable of converting all that sprint power to take down big men.  Kyle Sinckler was his victim last weekend, and in this fixture in 2016, he improbably hauled down Sean O’Brien inches from the line to prevent a try that would have leveled the contest up.

“Awe, look. You have to grow that area of the game. You don’t want to be a weak link in that transition zone, otherwise teams will just target you for every strike move.

“It was an area that I had to work on and focus on and Steve (Hansen) made that obvious to me. I worked hard on it and, yeah, it’s just one of those things that you have to grow into your body.”

Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett and Codie Taylor tackle Sean O’Brien Barrett gets to grips with Sean O'Brien, this time on Lions duty. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He was a different kid the night he made his debut against Ireland. Low on technique, but high on the enthusiasm that came pre-loaded in his first senior All Black jersey.

“It was the highlight of my career, the first opportunity to wear the black jersey. Coming off the bench feeling like Superman making tackles I’d never made before. I couldn’t tackle back then so… it just gave me a wonderful sense of power and energy.”

All involved that bleak night in Hamilton have moved on a long way, but Barrett’s power and energy are among the few aspects to have remained a constant in a New Zealand-Ireland that has changed beyond recognition.

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Sean Farrell

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