Johnny Sexton guided Ireland to a hard-earned 19-9 win over France in Dublin on Saturday in the Six Nations.
Both teams were unaffected by Dublin’s rainfall and produced a passionate game of rugby that typified European rivalry.
The game did not decline into trench-style combat because of the weather but rather an exhibition of each team’s undeniable skill, in particular Sexton, who was magnificent on the day.
Ireland’s win sees them jump Scotland to the top of the table with England yet to play, a fine position to be in considering their defeat to Scotland in the first round of the competition. France languish at fifth on the table with only Italy below them. Scrum-half Conor Murray scored the only the five-pointer of the match, his try aided by the flawless kicking effort from Sexton.
France had an inspired start to the fixture, pulling off a magic moment it seemed with every minute on the field.
It started with an unprecedented cross kick from fly-half Camille Lopez close to their own line to winger Yoann Huget that parted the stunned Irish defence like the red sea, allowing the French to initiate a dangerous attacking movement up field which unfortunately didn’t lead to a try for the visitors.
They were the first onto the board though, when Lopez slotted a penalty in the 13th minute silencing a passionate home crowd.
Lopez would then add to his side’s lead seven minutes later. France should have scored a try through outside centre Rémi Lamerat after France pulled off another brilliant move that led to the centre receiving a pop pass and curbing around the defence, which was disallowed by the TMO after it was ruled that Gaël Fickou had knocked it on before the movement.
Against the general current of the game, Ireland scored the first try of the match when Conor Murray took it over the line after a brilliant break from Sexton that would catalyse an Irish revival to the dismay of the passionate French.
Ireland nearly scored again moments later after they rumbled up field, generating some forward momentum when they found themselves on the French line but could not quite break a resolute French defence, before Murray tried to pop the ball back which didn’t go as planned, rolling out of bounds.
Passions were high as Ireland’s dogged intensity had now eclipsed France’s enthusiasm as they pushed up field, almost exclusively through Garry Ringrose’s Herculean effort as he grasped for every metre possible. Murray used the field position astutely, spotted a gap and darted towards the line but was just taken down before the whitewash and offloaded, which came to no avail.
The half ended as a one-point game to the Irish, 7-6.
Ireland didn’t let the break ruin their new-found vigour and put France under pressure from the first minute of the second half, the pressure eventually culminating with Sexton kicking a penalty over and making the score 10-6 in Ireland’s favour.
The crowd was reminded of Sexton’s keen eye for an opportunity when the mercurial number ten had the ball 30 metres out from the French try line and attempted a drop goal, and despite the Dublin wind and deluge it stayed true to its course and Ireland went up by another three points.
Sexton’s boot punished the French once again after Ireland were awarded a very kickable penalty and the fly-half knocked it through making it a ten-point game.
The game became quiet after that as France made some desperate attempts to get back on the scoreboard. But each time their plan was foiled by the cohesive Ireland unit that just kept them out after wave after wave of French attack.
With ten points between France and Ireland, the French used a penalty in the Irish 22-metre area to shoot for goal rather kick for line. Lopez slotted the chance and it became a seven-point game with six minutes to play.
Ireland though replied quickly as replacement fly-half Paddy Jackson widened the gap to ten points once again.
With two minutes left to play Ireland were edging towards the French line once again and looked as though they were going to score their second try of the match, before Kieran Marmion decided that the victory was enough and kicked the ball into touch.
Pens: Sexton 2, Jackson
Drop Goal: Sexton
Pens: Lopez 3
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Andrew Trimble
France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Bernard le Roux, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Julian Le Devedec, 20 Charles Ollivon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Henry Chavancy, 23 Djibril Camara
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Luke Pearce (England), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)