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Sexton and Biggar take rivalry to new level in 6N opener

Sexton and Biggar take rivalry to new level in 6N opener

Jonathan Sexton recalls in his early days as a rugby international how there was “a nastier side” to the Ireland-Wales rivalry; it had "a bit of bite.”

To him, that changed in 2009 when a British and Irish Lions squad dominated by Irish and Welsh toured South Africa and hit it off.

Subsequent Lions tours have broadened the friendships, including one between Sexton and Dan Biggar that was forged on the successful 2017 tour of New Zealand.

Nearly five years later, the rival flyhalves are opposing captains for the first time when Ireland and Wales kick off the latest Six Nations on Saturday at Lansdowne Road.

Sexton has been Ireland captain for two years. When Biggar was last month handed the Wales role for the first time in the absence of the injured Alun Wyn Jones, Sexton texted to him, “Congrats.”

Both are similar characters in being driven, demanding, and razor-tongued. Both players have joked about having sympathy for referee Jaco Peyper, who will have to deal with them on Saturday.

While the teams' rivalry isn’t as nasty as it used to be, it's still fierce. Wales hasn't won a competitive match in Dublin since 2012, and Ireland the same in Cardiff since 2013.

Sexton and Biggar have been in the middle of the rivalry for a decade, and their influence shows no sign of waning.

"We have had some great battles over the years,” Sexton said this week.

"He is a good pal of mine and the captaincy is something he deserves thoroughly. He's been a mainstay of the team and I'm looking forward to coming up against him on Saturday.

"He's improved his game immensely. With his move to Northampton, working with different coaches, you can see the improvements in his game and he's a world-class operator.”

Sexton has met Wales 16 times since 2010 and won only seven. Biggar has split his 11 matches against Ireland — one draw — and never won in Dublin.

While Sexton continues at age 36 to see off pretenders to his jersey, Biggar has lost the No. 10 jersey twice and come back twice.

Sexton reached 100 Irish caps in the autumn. If Biggar appears in all five of their Six Nations matches, he will reach 100 Wales caps in the finale against Italy next month.

"Whenever I get asked who has been the most difficult person to play against of the last 10-12 years, there is no doubt Johnny's name would be very near the top,” Biggar said this week.

"He is very similar to myself in terms of the drive, the will to win, scrapping for absolutely everything on the field.

"It's a testament to him in how he has managed to handle himself and keep his form going into his mid-30s. I don't think anyone is sure how old he really is.

“It is always a challenge playing against him. We may not be the best of friends for 80 minutes on the pitch and quite narky at each other. But away from the field, he is an absolute pleasure to deal with and I have a huge amount of time for him.”

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