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Friends, ferocious competitors, captains, family men - Sexton and Farrell

The Ireland and England leaders are remarkably similar personalities and players.

THE TV PRODUCERS and photographers will be hoping for a flashpoint between the pair, the coming together that highlights their relentless and ferocious competitiveness.

Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell have delivered such a tangle several times before, most memorably in 2017 as the Englishman ended up standing over the Irishman and shoving him down into the ground.

Sexton had the last laugh that day as Ireland denied the English a Grand Slam in Dublin and he has fired a fair few shots at Farrell himself over the years.

owen-farrell-with-jonathan-sexton Farrell and Sexton tangle in 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Though Sexton is almost six years Farrell’s senior, there are many similarities between these two riveting characters and world-class players.

Now their respective team’s captains as well as their place-kickers, Sexton and Farrell are fiery, demanding, driven, motivated, respected, and sometimes divisive. They are renowned as being among the best players in the world, yet questions are often asked of their temperament and self-control.

Given the similarity of their personalities and passion, it’s no great surprise that Sexton and Farrell are good friends – although that wasn’t always the case. 

In 2012, Farrell – only 20 at the time and in his first Six Nations campaign – pinned Sexton on the ground on a few occasions during England’s 30-9 win at Twickenham. The Leinster man wasn’t pleased and had “a few words.”

“I told him that just because his old man was a hard man, that didn’t make him one too,” recounts Sexton in his book, Becoming a Lion.

Sexton says Farrell came into Ireland’s changing room after the game to shake his hand and swap jerseys, adding that “I’d be surprised if he’s a bad guy, given who is dad is. I don’t know Andy Farrell but growing up I was a big fan. He was a hard bastard and a seriously good player.”

Of course, Sexton knows Andy Farrell very well now and the Ireland out-half was surprised at how well he got on with Owen on the 2013 Lions tour when they ended up rooming together.

“As it turns out, Owen is pretty easy to get on with,” writes Sexton. “He’s a bit spiky, like myself, as you can tell from watching him play. But I think that just shows he’s passionate about what he does. He is competitive, and that’s what makes him the player he is.

owen-farrell-and-jonathan-sexton-celebrate-with-the-trophy Sexton and Farrell celebrate series success in 2013. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He’s a character, full of chat, and while his accent is pure Lancashire, he reminds me that he must have a fair bit of Irish in him – his dad’s a Farrell and his mum’s an O’Loughlin.”

Later in the tour Sexton adds that “Owen is quickly becoming an honorary Irishman on this tour. The joke is that it’s because most of the English blokes are from Leicester and he’d rather hang around with us than them.”

Sexton was the leading man at 10 for the Lions on that successful 2013 tour of Australia, starting all three Tests for Warren Gatland’s side. Still just 21, Farrell didn’t get off the bench in the first two Tests before playing the closing 17 minutes of the third Test as Sexton’s replacement with the game already decided.

The English playmaker did, however, learn a huge amount from the more experienced Sexton.

“He’s a fantastic player and even though I had respect for him before going, I have even more respect now,” said Farrell after that tour. “I enjoyed being around him, seeing what players bring to the job day-in and day-out, the detail they go into.”

While they kept in touch off the pitch, Sexton and Farrell continued to do battle on the pitch, clashing as Ireland and England met in the Six Nations.

“We’ve got a good relationship, apart from trying to kill each other at the Aviva last time!” joked Sexton on the 2017 Lions tour, when they delighted in working together again.

Farrell started the first Test in New Zealand as Sexton was left on the bench, but Gatland then shifted Farrell to 12 for the second Test as the Irishman started at out-half. Their 10-12 combination was pivotal in the Lions beating the All Blacks in Wellington and, ultimately, drawing the series.

owen-farrell-and-jonathan-sexton-celebrate-after-the-game Farrell and Sexton embrace after the Lions' 2017 win in Wellington. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Andy Farrell, on the 2017 tour as defence coach again, described Sexton and Farrell as “joined at the hip” in New Zealand.

“They’re constantly talking about rugby, they room together,” said Farrell senior. “They live and breathe rugby.

“They’re very similar characters. They’re both obviously big students of the game and have won a lot of things along the way.

“More than anything, it’s how they make people feel, how they make the people around them feel; the energy that they bring.”

This was an early indication that Farrell felt Sexton possessed excellent leadership skills and he has backed that ability with Ireland, installing the 34-year-old as his new captain for this Six Nations despite much clamour for 23-year-old lock James Ryan to be given the responsibility.

Owen Farrell has also become the England captain since the 2017 Lions tour, taking over from Dylan Hartley for the first time in the 2018 Six Nations, going through a period as official co-captain with Hartley, and then taking on the job permanently as injury problems hampered the now-retired hooker.

Farrell led England all the way to the World Cup final last year, but his captaincy has been questioned since their underperformance in defeat to South Africa, with former England international Stuart Barnes chief among those with doubts. 

Similarly, Sexton’s history of being abrasive with referees caused concern for some Ireland fans with regards to his captaincy, although the Dublin man has been working hard to be more calm and patient in those interactions.

The truth is that we see only glimpses of the real value of Sexton and Farrell’s captaincy. Their chats with match officials are an important part of the job, certainly, but what they do and say during the week leading up to games is just as important. Their words matter.

johnny-sexton-with-owen-farrell-scuffle Sexton and Farrell during a Leinster v Saracens clash in 2018. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

During the World Cup, England hooker Jamie George recounted how brilliant Farrell can be during their captain’s meetings on the eve of games. 

“He says his bit and without fail you can hear a pin drop,” said George.

“Everyone is hanging on every word he that he says. It is very inspirational without tearing the roof down because that is probably not what is needed but he has a very good feel of what the team needs and what messages he needs to deliver.”

George’s review of Farrell came to mind after Ireland’s win over Wales two weekends ago when Ireland prop Dave Kilcoyne said that when Sexton spoke in his own captain’s meetings, “you’re almost clinging onto the words he says.”

“He was looking around and he was just looking at everybody and was like, ‘The quality in this room is absolutely insane. There are world-class players throughout,’” said Kilcoyne of their pre-Wales chat.

Meanwhile, Cian Healy revealed this week that in his new role as captain, Sexton “has a real focus on family.”

Asked about that yesterday, Sexton said it has been driven by his head coach, Andy Farrell.

“That’s come from Faz really,” said Sexton. “Obviously the head coach and the captain have to be close in their views and thoughts. At the forefront of everything we do, we want our families.

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“Having them in on captain’s runs, having them in the dressing room after games, having them up at the post-match function, having them back to the hotel the day after, all these things are at the forefront of everything we do.

british-and-irish-lions-owen-farrell-and-jonathan-sexton-during-the-kicking-practice Farrell and Sexton became friends on the Lions tours. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Ultimately, they are the people you want to make proud when you represent Ireland. Obviously, we want to do everyone proud but you can’t keep everyone happy, that’s what you learn over your career. But your family is at the forefront of it.”

If Andy Farrell has been driving that message with his Ireland captain, we can be certain he drove it with his son too – and that family is a key part of Owen Farrell’s focus with England.

On Wednesday, the Ireland head coach said he has been on the phone to his son this week, as usual, also asking Owen to direct the FaceTime call towards his own son, Tommy – who turns one next month.

While trying to push the emotional side of their teams, Sexton and Farrell are aware of the need to maintain a cooler edge to deliver on their team’s game plans.

It’s a battle the pair of them face on an individual basis in every game they play, particularly now that they’re working with referees.

“Last time we beat them over there, we executed some really good plays that got us the scores and you can’t do that if you’re too emotionally charged, you’ve got to find the balance,” said Sexton yesterday.

“Everyone is different, that’s why rugby is difficult – some guys need to be right up there emotionally, other guys need to be pretty relaxed. It’s trying to get the balance.”

It’s often been the case that Sexton and Farrell have worn the number 10 shirt when they’ve gone head-to-head, but the Englishman is now at 12 as Eddie Jones opts to continue with George Ford at out-half.

Sexton and Farrell remain similar players even when they’re not in the same position. They are clever decision-makers with superb passing skills and vision.

owen-farrell-and-johnny-sexton England and Ireland go head-to-head tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They’re both strong defenders who often bring an upper-body tackle focus or look to strip the ball out of tackles, while their communication in defence is elite.

28-year-old Farrell is perhaps the bigger hitter but he’s also a bigger tackle misser for that fact, underlined by his 63% tackle success in this Six Nations compared to Sexton’s 92% so far.

Smart tactical kickers with the skillset to add in shorter attacking kicks too, while both being robust when they need to carry, Sexton and Farrell are even roughly of the same dimensions in height and weight.

But it is really the personality that makes these two competitors so similar. 

Tomorrow, their friendship is put to one side again.

At Twickenham, winning is all that matters to Farrell and Sexton.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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