The world’s top two-ranked teams will face off in Dublin this weekend and with it, two of the five candidates for World Rugby Player of the Year will duel, in Beauden Barrett and Jonathan Sexton.
The quality of Springboks Malcolm Marx and Faf de Klerk is undoubted, as is finisher Rieko Ioane, however, the race for the players’ top gong should be a two-horse race at this stage between Sexton and Barrett.
Ireland’s Sexton should be ahead on points over the reigning back-to-back winner and is in the box seat to claim the award. 2018 has been Ireland’s year, and Sexton has been pivotal for the national team and at domestic level with Leinster.
Barrett’s year hasn’t been quite the same as the last two, however, his performance in the win at Twickenham will add to the case for a third straight title.
The 33-year-old Sexton started the international year in Paris against France, saving the test with a clutch 40-metre drop goal after 39 phases deep into extra time.
At the time, it wasn’t to be known just how important that kick would be, as Ireland proceeded to run the table and win their first Grand Slam since 2009, only their third ever. The 15-13 win in Paris, saved by Sexton, will go down as an all-time great moment in rugby history.
Sexton’s control guided Ireland to key wins over Wales and Scotland in rounds three and four, where he was particularly impressive against Scotland as they sealed the Six Nations after England lost to France later that evening.
The next week at Twickenham against England, Sexton contributed to one try and kicked two conversions in the 24-15 win, sealing a historic Grand Slam and securing Ireland as number two in the world rankings.
The June away tour of Australia also proved to be a slice of history. Ireland completed their first series win down under in 39 years, coming back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1. The loss, Ireland’s only one of the year so far, came without Sexton in the starting lineup.
A late Sexton penalty goal in the third test gave Ireland enough breathing room to close out the win and the series by 20-16.
What Sexton brings to Ireland with leadership and experience cannot be ignored in deciding this award. Sexton’s attacking stats do not match Barrett’s, but it would be folly to ignore the intangible influence he has on Ireland’s results. His direction and control are defining factors in each Irish victory.
With Sexton starting Ireland are 8-0 this year, and without they are 0-1. The All Blacks cannot say the same with Barrett – they are 6-1 with him playing the majority of the match and still 4-0 without.
Barrett’s opening test against France in June was a good first-up performance, scoring 17 points in a 52-17 demolition job. However, his game was overshadowed by a superb bench cameo from Damian McKenzie, who had one try, one try assist, five line breaks and 117 run metres from five carries in an explosive twenty minutes.
The game only opened up in the last quarter, brought about by a host of substitutions, in which the All Blacks were noticeably better afterward.
The second test in Wellington, unfortunately, ended prematurely for Barrett when an aerial collision with Benjamin Fall forced him from the field with a concussion.
He failed to return, opening the door for McKenzie to play the majority of the game and then start his first game at 10 for the All Blacks the following week. With McKenzie at 10 in the third test, the All Blacks put in their most complete performance of the series, winning 49-14 in Barrett’s absence.
A French series in which Barrett played less than half of isn’t a compelling start for the defence his Player of the Year title, but Barrett opened the Rugby Championship with two stellar games against the Wallabies.
In the opening Bledisloe, a slow start had the All Blacks behind at halftime 6-5 but an opportunistic try by Barrett proved to be the catalyst for a landslide 38-13 win in Sydney.
A record four-try performance by Barrett at Eden Park the following week secured the Bledisloe Cup for another year, as his world-class running game tore the Wallabies apart. He finished the game with a personal tally of 30 points.
The two tests against the Springboks may prove to be the black marks on Barrett’s 2018 resume.
Barrett’s solid performance with ball-in-hand in the first match was marred by an off night with the tee and game management in the final minute, leading to the Springboks upset win. He was quiet in the return match in Pretoria, a game dominated by the Springboks.
It was reserve first five-eighth Richie Mo’unga who came up with the pivotal plays to steal the win, first hammering a quickly taken touch-finder to set up the winning maul and then kicking the final conversion after the buzzer.
A rather forgettable win against Argentina in Buenos Aires followed for the All Blacks before another class performance against the Wallabies in final Bledisloe at Yokohama.
How much weight is given to three incredible performances over the hapless Wallabies? Barrett’s biggest games of the year came against the Australians while falling short against South Africa, while Sexton orchestrated a clean sweep of Europe and monumental series win in Australia. The strength of schedule would indicate Ireland’s feats were tougher to achieve.
This season’s Autumn Internationals is the perfect closer to determine the World Rugby’s Player of the Year.
Barrett’s performance at Twickenham was arguably his greatest win as an All Black 10. A significant performance in Dublin, one greater than his performance in the 2016 visit, may just tip the balance in his favour, while Sexton can remove all doubt and claim the award by guiding Ireland to another famous victory.
Sexton deserves to be in front, but there will be no better way for Barrett to prove he deserves a third Player of the Year award than beating Ireland and Sexton at home in Dublin.
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