'I won't be having that conversation with the ref about protecting Johnny'

The mic’d up interactions between Johnny Sexton, Rory Best and Romaine Poite will be an intriguing sub-plot of Leinster v Ulster.

AS A DOUBLE act, they have worked in excellent harmony on many occasions in Ireland colours.

They share leadership duties within the squad and on-field decisions. The good cop liaises with the referee, the bad cop reads the riot act to players and when one man lost his voice at last year’s World Rugby awards, the other even stepped up to take over the mic and issue an acceptance for World Player of the Year.

Johnny Sexton and Rory Best The odd couple. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But styles make fights, and the notable difference between the two captains’ communication approach will be an intriguing sub-plot of Saturday’s inter-provincial European quarter-final.

On one side of Romaine Poite will be Rory Best dangling a carrot. On the other, Johnny Sexton with the stick.

TV viewers can eavesdrop for free, those who have paid to watch in the Aviva Stadium might just feel the need to fork out an extra tenner for the ref-link ear-piece on this occasion.

“I won’t be having to have that conversation with the ref about protecting Johnny,” jokes Best.

“It will be an interesting conversation we have when Poite, at some stage I’m sure, will bring us both together to talk during the game. So we will see who can keep their cool in the middle of that.

Rory Best and Johnny Sexton Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Johnny is a fantastic leader within the Ireland squad and he has been doing a great job at Leinster. It will be very strange to be opposite him as opposing captain but look, he is more than earned the captaincy at Leinster.”

As ever, Sexton will be a key focal point for Ulster’s defence as he is the pivotal playmaker in any team he plays for. However, Best cautions that the target cannot be trained on Sexton alone.

“Look, ultimately we will obviously put pressure on him, but we will try and put pressure on all of the Leinster team. Because if you go over one player in a team like that, there are 14 others who are capable of picking you off.”

While Best and Sexton show little in common when it comes to their communication with officials, they both return to provincial action after being the core leaders of a difficult Test window for Ireland.

While Sexton and half-back partner Conor Murray drew a large part of the criticism for Ireland’s form, the shared pain should amount to shared responsibility.

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Jonathan Sexton celebrates scoring their second try with Rory Best Best celebrates a try with Sexton against France. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“A lot’s been made of it, but when you look at our half-backs and the criticism they’ve received, they’ve got that because, in their position, they’re the best players in the world.”

The hooker adds: “They’re perceived to have played well in that France game because the forwards got us on the front foot, our set-piece was rock solid, breakdown was good, the outside backs were well organised…

“That’s why rugby is so brilliant. because everyone is ultimately inter-dependent on everyone else. Johnny and Conor can’t win a game on their own and when people aren’t functioning around them, of course they can’t play well. Same as we (forwards) can’t play well. You need everyone, especially at that top, top level of international rugby.

“Because they’re among the best players in the world and seen as the linchpin of their team they get the criticism. But the criticism needs to fall on the team and why we didn’t function as a team.

“But Johnny Sexton, have no doubt, he is the man for the big occasion. He is still the world player of the year. Obviously, you hope you’re not going to see it on Saturday.

“We make a plan to put as much pressure as we can on this Leinster team, him included.

You know that he is going to produce something. You can try to keep him quiet, but you’re not going to keep him quiet for 80 minutes.

“You know there’s something in there that, whenever he pulls something (out of the bag), some of us have to do something magical in defence where you just go ‘wow, how was he able to read that?’

“That’s what you’re going to have to do against somebody like Johnny.”

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Sean Farrell

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