THE last time they appeared in the same Test match, they were ‘trying to kill each other’.
Today, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell stand shoulder-to-shoulder as brothers in arms, desperately bidding to keep the Lions’ hopes alive in the Second Test against the All Blacks.
Warren Gatland’s decision to pair the Ireland and England playmakers represents a death-or-glory gamble — and also sends his ‘Warrenball’ tactics through the shredder.
Ben Te’o was one of the Lions’ best performers in last weekend’s 30-15 defeat by New Zealand, in the typical Gatland role as a hole-punching centre.
Yet the former rugby league star is axed to accommodate Sexton at fly-half with Farrell switching to No 12 — and Gatland suddenly cast as a devil-may-care risk-taker.
But Irishman Sexton is adamant that he and Englishman Farrell, 25, can thrive in tandem.
The duo have been pals since the last Lions tour when Farrell did not start in the Tests against Australia.
Yet they hammered each other when Ireland ended England’s hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams in March.
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Sexton, 31, said: “I have always really admired Owen and enjoyed playing with him four years ago. We stayed in contact since the last tour so we have a good relationship — apart from when we were trying to kill each other, especially at the Aviva last time out!
“We get on great, which really helps. On this tour I thought we played pretty well together against the Crusaders. We only really had that 50-minute window but things went well then.
“The strengths Ben Te’o brings are pretty clear and the strengths Owen brings will be slightly different.
“I’m really looking forward to us having two playmakers.
“Because of the respect I have for Owen, I’ve said it was the biggest challenge of my life to get in this team ahead of him — he’s a world-class outside-half.
“But I back myself, I hope I can bring something to the team that will get us over the line and tie the series.
“Hopefully we can click and make the whole team better.”
With wet and windy weather anticipated in Wellington, Gatland’s gamble appears even more stark.
He admits his team lost the physical battle in Auckland but has now sacrificed his most physical back in Te’o to employ this Sexton-Farrell axis.
Farrell is expected to stay on goal-kicking duty with both men and scrum-half Conor Murray likely to be employing the boot frequently in open play, despite the conditions.
Not that Ireland’s golden boy seems intimidated by the challenge.
Sexton upheld his reputation for spikiness with a dig at the All Blacks’ physical approach to winning in Dublin last November –— just two weeks after Ireland’s shock victory over the world champions in Chicago.
Then, Sam Cane knocked out Irish centre Robbie Henshaw and Kiwi wing Israel Dagg ended CJ Stander’s involvement with a whack to the jaw.
Asked if the Lions needed to adopt the same approach, Sexton sniped: “I don’t think so because if we do that, we’d probably get a couple of red cards!
“We need to keep our discipline but we need to show some intent. To let the people at home know what that jersey means to us.
“There was a lot of effort last week but we need not to lose as many confrontations or physical battles.”
Sexton got into trouble for apparently showing dissent to ref Jaco Peyper after going on as a second-half replacement for Te’o at Eden Park last week.
But he said: “It’s part of my game and part of my personality that I need to work on. I’ve been working on it for the last ten years . . . so it’s been going really well!
“Things happen in the heat of battle where you wave your arms as an instinctive thing.
“What I said to the ref wasn’t out of order, I don’t think.
“But everything has got to go through Sam Warburton this week and Sam seems to have a really good relationship with refs.”
Sexton struggled for form at the start of this tour but believes he is back on his A game.
He said: “I had a couple of bad games but there were reasons for them. I’ve copped it on the chin and moved on.
“I don’t lose confidence when I have a bad game because as a No 10, you’re never far away from having a good one. A kick that goes out, another day will be caught by a winger and he scores a try.
“We need a response, though, don’t we? The way the All Blacks played and beat us was not how they have traditionally beaten teams over the last couple of years.
“It’s a huge challenge but a huge opportunity as well.
“You don’t get many chances to create history in your career and to turn around a series like this, after going 1-0 down, would go down as one of the greatest Lions performances.”