Sexton returns as Ireland hold off France fightback
It was like he had never been away as Jonathan Sexton returned to the Ireland starting line-up to mastermind a hard-fought RBS 6 Nations win over France in Dublin.
Sexton slotted five penalties for the hosts and, in an encounter short on line breaks but high on physicality, that proved to be the difference.
Philippe Saint-Andre’s wait for a first win as head coach against the men in green goes on, a statistic all the more concerning considering the two sides are paired together in the World Cup, but his side did score the game’s only try through Romain Taofifénua.
Ian Madigan also kicked a penalty for Ireland while Sexton was receiving treatment for a blood injury in the second half and despite yellow cards after the break for both Pascal Pape and Rory Best, try-scoring chances were at a premium throughout.
But Ireland will not care a jot about that as the defending RBS 6 Nations champions have now won two from two in this year’s Championship and nine in a row overall.
The last three clashes between these two teams have finished with two draws and Ireland’s narrow 22-20 victory in Paris last year that sealed the Championship so it was always going to be close.
And in the opening stages all eyes were on Sexton, the fly-half making his return after completing his mandatory 12-week stand-down for multiple concussions.
His first touch with ball in hand was less than stellar, flinging a pass into touch after a quickly-taken tap penalty but in his rest period he had clearly not lost his appetite for contact, going out of his way to smash into Mathieu Bastareaud at the first opportunity.
The scrum was certainly an area where Ireland were keen to make their advantage count, after all Les Bleus’ front row had only ten Test starts between them.
And a penalty won at the scrum created Ireland’s first points as from the subsequent rolling maul deep in France territory, the visitors were penalised and Sexton slotted the kick.
But the lead did not last long, France fly-half Camille Lopez continuing where he left off last week against Scotland to level up proceedings after Rob Kearney spilled a high ball and found himself isolated.
At the end of the first quarter Sexton had re-established Ireland’s lead, France punished by referee Wayne Barnes for infringing at the breakdown and the fly-half slotting home.
France were competing voraciously at every breakdown but for every turnover they were winning, they were also conceding kickable penalties and it was from another such incident – captain Thierry Dusautoir the culprit this time – that Sexton stretched the lead to 9-3.
Livewire wing Teddy Thomas limped off injured for Les Bleus soon after but France were again quick to reply after a rare foray in the Irish half, hooker Best failing to roll away and Lopez unerring from the tee.
The kicking battle was showing no signs of abating in a nip and tuck first half and with the clock ticking down to the interval Sexton slotted his fourth penalty to re-establish a six-point lead.
Sexton and Bastareaud started the second half the same way they had the first, neither taking a backwards step in contact, as a sickening clash of heads resulted in both leaving the field for blood replacements.
In the absence of Sexton, the kicking duties fell to replacement Madigan and the Leinster fly-half made no mistake with his first shot at goal to put the hosts more than a score clear at 15-6.
France were still searching for their first try of this year’s RBS 6 Nations and as the second half wore on they had plenty of possession but failed to create a chance of any real note.
Pape was sent to the sin bin for a deliberate knee in the back of Jamie Heaslip and Sexton butchered a chance for Ireland when he should have spread the ball left.
But it was soon 14 men against 14 as Best saw yellow for persistent team infringements at the breakdown and France were again on the front foot, albeit without ever looking like breaching the green wall.
To make matters worse Lopez then fluffed a regulation penalty and up the other end Sexton showed him how it was done and the men in green were well clear at 18-6.
But with both sides restored to their full quota France finally got the try their dominance warranted, replacement lock Taofifénua on the end of a classic flowing move orchestrated by replacement scrum-half Morgan Parra.
Lopez’s conversion was off target however and with ten minutes left France were still seven points behind.
In the closing stages France were the team playing all the rugby, Sexton again receiving treatment for blood as every Irishman put their body on the line in defence and in the end that proved enough to set up a mouth-watering clash with England in two weeks time.
Ireland – 18
Pens: Sexton 5, Madigan
France – 11
Pens: Lopez 3
RR World Rankings outcome on Result 18-11 Win to Ireland
IRE (on 85.47 points) at home -vs- FRA (on 80.25 points)
|IRE win by 7 points||0.178||85.65||80.07||No|
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones
France: 1 Eddy Ben Arous 2 Guilhem Guirado 3 Rabah Slimani 4 Pascal Papé 5 Yoann Maestri 6 Thierry Dusautoir 7 Bernard Le Roux 8 Damien Chouly 9 Rory Kockott 10 Camille Lopez 11 Teddy Thomas 12 Wesley Fofana 13 Mathieu Bastareaud 14 Yoann Huget 15 Scott Spedding
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser 17 Uini Atonio 18 Vincent Debaty 19 Romain Taofifenua 20 Loan Goujon 21 Morgan Parra 22 Remi Tales 23 Remy Lamerat
Date: Saturday, February 14
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
AR1: Nigel Owens (Wales)
AR2: Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)