Beauden Barrett may not model his game on Jonathan Sexton but he does appreciate the Irishman’s durability as they prepare to clash once more this Saturday.
hile Sexton continues to demonstrate his prowess amidst an absence of realistic challenges to his position, Barrett has had to fend off more viable internal competition.
Ian Foster has dabbled with Richie Mo’unga at out-half in recent times, with Barrett shifting to full-back, but a sabbatical in Japan appears to have renewed his focus on preserving his role as his country’s go-to ten.
“I was grateful for an opportunity to play in Japan this year and step away from New Zealand footy and what I’ve been in the groove in doing for a number of years now and get a bit of perspective on life and footy in general.
“It gave me the opportunity to get back in the driver’s seat and get regular reps in the first five-eighth position which I thoroughly enjoyed. So yeah, it was a great experience for me, I came back very excited, physically in good shape and felt really good.
“I’m now 30, I’m married, I’ve got a daughter, life’s a bit different. For me, I’ve got a bit more responsibility in this team, being a leader and so on and I just want to make the most of it because the last 10 years has gone very fast.
“I feel like I’ve still got a long way to go and still feel young and energetic and very driven to be better so yeah, I’m just enjoying my footy and my role in this team at the moment.”
He is playing a long game.
Like half-back partner TJ Perenara, the relaxed detour to Japan has clearly re-aligned his motivation and Foster seems likely to keep faith with Barrett at ten this weekend, where he will encounter once more a durable rival in Sexton.
“I admire his play, his longevity and how influential he is for his team,” says Barrett, who is close to re-capturing the form that made him such a dominant presence on the global stage in 2016 and 2017.
“Of course he has great skill-sets. One of the strengths of his game is his ability to get second touches, post-pass and follow up and get another touch like that.
“There is a lot to admire about him and the way he plays. In terms of his mentality, he’s a clear competitor.
“He loves to win, he loves to get amongst the physicality and he’s a huge part of their team and how they play.”
Barrett and Sexton earned their 100th international caps within weeks of the other recently and, as always, much of this game’s ebb and flow will be dictated by the influence of the pivots.
“He’s a very good player. He’s so influential for their team and he’s all class so of course, you love these match-ups.
“You don’t get too caught up in it but you do appreciate who your opponent is and the team you’re playing so absolutely.
“He brought up his 100th cap last week and it was evident that his team got up for him and they put in a really good performance.
“So they’ll be on a high, he’ll be buzzing so a great opportunity and hopefully I get it this weekend.”
Ireland are buzzing too, mainly due to the spark produced by their own interaction with Japanese rugby, based on the evidence of last weekend’s expansive exhibition.
“Over the last couple of days I have been looking at clips and following them from abroad and looking at results,” says Barrett, who resided at full-back for much of the past two years before resorting to his familiar berth.
“Obviously that result at the weekend was a significant one, blowing Japan out of the water. They’ve always been in the fight in all the Six Nations games.
“I think what you see is a very strong and hard-working and united team. A team you have to work hard to break down over 80 minutes.
“Most of their guys are pretty fit and ready to go, I’m not sure if they have many injuries to go so they’re all ready.”
Of the previous five meetings, four are shared with the only definitive result being the most important fixture, in the last World Cup where Ireland were dismissed comprehensively at the quarter-final stage.
“We’d be foolish not to learn from the previous games. They’re a serious side and we have so much respect for them. We’re preparing accordingly.
“We know how physical they are, the arm-wrestle they like to get into and how tactically good they are. They’re technically sound but very good tacticians, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton run a good cutter.
“So we’re going to have to work hard to break this team down, it will take a lot of discipline and they are a very good side.”
The assumption is that this will be a free-flowing affair but, after their fitful Italian win, New Zealand are mindful of allowing Ireland too much rein to play.
“It’s certainly going to be tight, physical and tactics being played. It’s test rugby. You can’t get too cute with it.
“You’ve got to win the battle up front and earn the right. It will be something like we’ve seen in recent years.”