Sexton vs Barrett: World Rugby Player of the Year on the line as the two best tens go head-to-head
Talismanic out-halves Johnny Sexton and Beauden Barrett lock horns in what promises to be a titanic individual duel that will have a major say in tonight’s outcome between Ireland and New Zealand – as well as the World Rugby Player of the Year award, which is set to be announced at the end of the month
Johnny Sexton has faced New Zealand 11 times in his illustrious career and only once has he ever swapped jerseys with an All Blacks player.
The aura around the jersey is such that some All Blacks players have been known to have serious lofty notions about it, which meant that down through the years, it has been common enough that they would pointedly refuse to swap at the end of a game.
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Neither Sexton nor Beauden Barrett went looking for each other after Ireland's historic win in Soldier Field, but a chance meeting in the corridors afterwards led to the two best out-halves in the world exchanging their number 10 shirts.
Two years on from Chicago, the pair who lead the running in the race to be crowned World Rugby's Player of the Year in Monte Carlo at the end of the month come face-to-face in a showdown that will go some way to deciding who wins the prestigious award.
For Sexton, it is all about "catching" his opposite number, who has his sights setting on winning the gong for a record third straight year.
Both are very different out-halves but yet have many similar traits that mark them out as the standard-setters in the position.
Sexton can claim to be the best controlling and kicking 10 in the world, while Barrett is comfortably the most outstanding pivot with ball in hand. To combine both of their skills would create the perfect mix.
"If I was fast, basically, is what you're saying," Sexton laughs as that idea is put to him.
By the time Barrett came off the bench for his international debut in 2012, Ireland were dead and buried and the then slick 21-year-old rammed the point home as he announced his arrival on the world stage.
It was the first time that the Hurricanes man had come up against Sexton and there was no doubt who got the better of their first duel.
Since that 60-0 thrashing in Hamilton back in 2012, Barrett has faced Sexton six times with his overall record currently at four wins, two defeats and a draw. Something, you feel, has to give at the Aviva Stadium later this evening.
Sexton picked a bad time to have an uncharacteristic off night against Argentina last weekend but with such a huge game looming large, one suspects that he wasn't the only player with one eye on tonight's clash.
The 33-year-old's presence at Monday's press briefing was a clear sign of Joe Schmidt wanting to set the tone for the week ahead and Steve Hansen replied by putting his main man in front of the media the following day.
"Well, they are a little bit different, aren't they?" Schmidt maintains. "Beauden tends to run a little bit more because he has that running threat. He tends to be looking for second touches, so he wants to get re-involved after being involved.
"Johnny is looking to set up other players and bring other players into the game. I think Beauden does it because he is such a threat himself, you can't leave him with any space at all. Therefore other players around him get space. Johnny creates space because of his timing and his acumen. I'm not saying that Beauden Barrett doesn't have that.
"I think it's just a real strength of Johnny. He's well capable of running, even picking and going.
"Against Wales (in this year's Six Nations) in the corner, I don't know what he was doing there, but he gained a couple of metres, and Cian (Healy) managed to pick and go, and score.
"So I think that's probably on his highlights reel. He probably hasn't done too many of those."
The one regular criticism that is aimed at Barrett is his goal-kicking. For all of his undoubted brilliance with the ball, the 27-year-old's kicking success rate this year is lower than any other tier-one player with more than 10 attempts.
Earlier this year, back in New Zealand, there were calls for Barrett to be dropped as the emergence of Richie Mo'unga, who was exceptional in the Crusaders' successful Super Rugby title defence, had heaped pressure on the All Blacks' golden boy.
Hansen, however, ignored those calls and stuck by Barrett, who has repaid that faith in spades.
During the Lions tour last year, Barrett scored 41 points in the drawn series, including 21 points in the second Test defeat, yet he is still remembered by some for the three shots at goal that he missed.
Sexton, however, has an altogether different recollection of the events at the Westpac Stadium.
"I think he gets a bad... if you look at his stats, 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," the Ireland out-half explains.
"The game against South Africa, he only missed a few. But 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 is incredible, and he had one disallowed as well, so he had potential to score five.
"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. So he's a nice guy. It was a nice moment, it's good to have an All Blacks jersey in my house.
"Like I said, that was the only one I have. Look, he's World Player of the Year the last two years in a row, he's the guy to catch."
The mutual respect between the two world-class operators has been evident from listening to both players speak about each other this week.
The four tries that Sexton highlighted came back in August when Barrett produced a scintillating performance for the ages in the Rugby Championship.
He tore the Australian defence to shreds with four searing line breaks that beat seven defenders for 147 metres en route to scoring a personal haul of a staggering 30 points.
Barrett broke all kinds of records including becoming the first out-half in rugby history to score four tries in a Test and the most points scored in a Bledisloe Cup clash. He also equalled the most points ever scored in a Test match at the hallowed Eden Park turf.
While Sexton is unlikely to ever score four tries in such a big Test, especially considering the fact that he has only ever managed 10 in his 83 caps, he brings so much more to the party.
Sexton rolled back the years during Ireland's Grand Slam campaign and his sensational drop goal in Paris will forever be remembered as one of the most special moments in Irish rugby history.
Few players in the world could have pulled that off, perhaps not even Barrett, who amazingly only just last week against England scored the very first drop goal of his international career.
"It was obviously a good decision at the time to take a lead," Sexton insists.
"In those conditions even a three-point lead is massive. I think he just snuck them ahead with it and showed that it is in his arsenal somewhere. He didn't pull it out in Wellington against South Africa but he had it in there."
The Leinster player's form over the last year has been such that it merely re-emphasised how important he is to Schmidt's grand plan because, simply put, if Sexton plays well, Ireland invariably do too.
"He's a great player. very skilful, very influential for the Irish team," Barrett says of Sexton.
"We are both similar. We are both lucky to be on the back of two great packs and two great nines, so yeah I always look forward to the match-up.
"Johnny is 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."
Both teams will be out to nullify the threat of opposition out-half. Josh van der Flier will be tasked with getting off the line quickly and into Barrett's face every chance he gets, while Ardie Savea will be told to do the same to Sexton.
In typical Kiwi fashion, the All Blacks camp have not been shy in throwing a couple of subtle digs at Ireland this week, particularly at Sexton and the way he conducts himself with referees.
But Sexton has played in games refereed by Wayne Barnes enough times in the past to know exactly what to expect from the English official.
"He's (Sexton) very competitive," Hansen says.
"He likes to get what he wants. Likes to drive the team the way he wants to and the way Joe wants him to drive it. You have got to admire what he has done. He's going to be a big man for them."
For 80 minutes this evening, the majority of the country will pause to witness the two best teams in the world going head-to-head.
Central to the drama that will unfold are the world's two best out-halves.
Whoever emerges victorious from this mouthwatering battle of the 10s will likely decipher the result both in Dublin tonight as well as Monte Carlo in a fortnight.