Late Johnny Sexton brilliance stuns France
Johnny Sexton was the Ireland hero as his last-minute long range drop-goal broke France hearts, snatching a dramatic 15-13 triumph at the Stade de France.
Les Bleus were playing their first game under Jacques Brunel, following the sacking of Guy Noves, and it showed in the opening 20 minutes.
The Emerald Isle were initially far more assured in what they were trying to achieve with the ball and successive Sexton penalties gave them a six-point buffer. Maxime Machenaud reduced the deficit from the tee, but the visiting pivot added another three-pointer for a 9-3 advantage at the interval.
Sexton and Machenaud then traded three-pointers after the break, leaving it finely poised going into the four quarter, but the French seemed to produce one final surge.
Joe Schmidt’s team had appeared too streetwise for an outfit still finding its feet, but Teddy Thomas weaved his way through the opposition’s rearguard for a superb try. However, Ireland are a confident side under their astute boss and they maintained their composure to win the game when Sexton dropped a goal from over 40 metres.
The visitors began confidently and went through the phases impressively and against a French team eager to get into the contest, forcing Brunel’s men to infringe.
Keith Earls was also looking particularly threatening and those two factors allowed the away side to earn a couple of kickable penalties, which Sexton converted for an early 6-0 advantage.
The 2014 and ‘15 winners remained in the ascendancy and created an opportunity inside their opponents’ 22 but, to the hosts’ credit, they remained resilient in defence.
For a team that has had little preparation time under their new head coach, Les Bleus were remarkably well organised and they managed to frustrate Ireland. Schmidt’s men duly became far too narrow in attack and France profited at the breakdown, earning a pressure-relieving penalty.
Brunel’s team then got into the Ireland half and reduced the arrears via Machenaud before Sexton restored the visitors’ buffer at the interval.
It was a disappointing opening 40 minutes, particularly after Ireland’s bright start, and the attrional nature of the contest continued in the second period.
Both teams were trying every trick in the book to slow down opposition ball but the French stepped over the line in the 47th minute and the Emerald Isle’s pivot punished them with his fourth off the tee.
Ireland had been disciplined throughout the encounter and it kept the hosts at arm’s length, but a needless infringement allowed Machenaud to keep France in the game.
Schmidt’s men were in control and appeared to be heading for victory before Thomas picked up the ball, scythed his way through and crossed the whitewash. Anthony Belleau converted and that looked to be the game, until Sexton displayed his qualities in the final minute.
Pens: Machenaud 2
Pens: Sexton 4
France: 15 Geoffrey Palis, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Kevin Gourdon, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16 Adrien Pelissié, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Marco Tauleigne, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Benjamin Fall
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Dan Leavy, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Fergus McFadden
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)