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Friday 14 December 2018

Owen and Johnny the best of enemies

Leinster out-half can better Lions team-mate Farrell and lead Ireland to third Grand Slam

Owen Farrell, left, and Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Owen Farrell, left, and Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell, the best of friends, will be the worst of enemies for one afternoon in London.

Apparently, the Irishman and the Englishman spent a lot of time in each other’s company over the course of the last two British & Irish Lions tours to Australia and New Zealand.

In Australia in 2013, Farrell was relatively new to the international arena.

He spent the tour studying and learning from Sexton the details of the position as Master and Commander.      

Four years on, Warren Gatland took time to see the error of his ways in opting for Farrell at out-half and the muscle of Ben Te’o at inside centre in New Zealand.

By the time the coach turned to Sexton in the second test, the best case scenario was to save the test series rather than win it. The first and second receiver model was the perfect vehicle for Sexton and Farrell.

Ireland’s defence coach Andy Farrell, Owen’s father, is, perhaps, best placed to encapsulate their relationship.

“They’ve been joined at the hip for the last five weeks,” he said in New Zealand.

“They are constantly talking about rugby, they room together, so they live and breathe rugby.

“They are very similar characters,” he observed.

“They are both obviously big students of the game and have won a lot of things along the way as well.

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

The famously competitive Sexton sees a kindred spirit when he looks at Farrell the younger.

The Dubliner is seen as an exception, in terms of his drive and focus, at Leinster.

There is rarely a week that passes without someone making reference to his ‘bark.’

Sexton’s non-negotiable will-to-win and grumpy demeanour is matched by the like-minded Farrell, a combustible character, who has worked hard to control his temper.

“I’ve always admired him,” said Sexton last summer. We’ve got on great and stayed in contact since the last tour (in 2013).”

Their most recent clash in green and white went the way of Sexton, denying England back-to-back Grand Slams last March.  

“We’ve got a good relationship – apart from trying to kill each other at the Aviva last time,” he noted.

The relationship thrived even when Farrell blocked Sexton’s route to the number ten test shirt in New Zealand.

It wasn’t personal. It was just the business of professional rugby. 

“I was asked whether it was the biggest challenge of my career to try to get ahead of Owen and, because of the respect I have for him, I said ‘yes.’

“He’s a world-class out-half, but I back myself,” said the Irishman.

Fast-forwarding, it is a touch simplistic to match the two playmakers as the definitive difference makers at Twickenham.

There are too many variables that come into a winning equation.

The set-piece foundations of scrum and lineout and the restarts are the access points.

For these, the front eight and scrum-halfs have to put the devil into the detail.

The kicking games of Conor Murray (left) and Richard Wigglesworth are sure to be central.

It is most likely that the edge up front will feed into the one-on-one between Sexton and Farrell.     

Even then, there are the men further out who have to turn what they get into what their nations’ need most – points.

Because points lead to prizes and on this special occasion, one of the grandest prizes in the game.

England: A Watson; J May, J Joseph, B Te’o, E Daly; E Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, D Hartley (capt), K Sinckler, G Kruis, M Itoje, C Robshaw, J Haskell, S Simmonds.  Replacements: J George, J Marler, D Cole, J Launchbury, D Armand, D Care, G Ford, M Brown.

Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), T Furlong, J Ryan, I Henderson, P O’Mahony, D Leavy, CJ Stander.  Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, A Porter, D Toner, J Murphy; K Marmion, J Carbery, J Larmour.

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