Ireland's Johnny Sexton kicks sensational 42-metre drop goal with last kick of the game to secure win over France
History looked destined to repeat itself in Paris, but Ireland refused to allow themselves suffer another loss on French soil.
Johnny Sexton will take the plaudits for an outrageous long-range winning drop-goal, but his team-mates need their fair share of credit after somehow holding possession for 41 phases of taut, risk-heavy rugby in difficult conditions deep into injury time to take the ball from the ’22 into French territory so that he could be the hero.
It was enthralling stuff, at one-point Sexton pushed the envelope with a cross-kick to Keith Earls that would have been the end of it had it not come off. The kick was pin-point, the wing re-gathered and the phase clock kept ticking.
When it came, Sexton delivered one of his great moments in green. He might have been the villain after missing a much simpler penalty that would have put Ireland nine points up with 17 minutes remaining, but he changed the story.
It was a win they merited, but one they so nearly threw away as they lost control of the game in the final quarter as Teddy Thomas scored a brilliant try and Anthony Belleau converted to give France the lead for the first time with seven minutes remaining.
The replacement out-half missed a penalty that would have forced Ireland to go for a try and just when they looked doomed, Joe Schmidt’s men pulled it out of the fire.
The main black spot was the serious looking injury suffered by Josh van der Flier, but Ireland roll on to Dublin and Italy with their Grand Slam dreams intact. Just.
They started well, signalling their intent to attack from the off, sweeping wide right off a lineout throw to James Ryan at the tail where Keith Earls made big gains before they went the other way and Rob Kearney surged into the ’22. France were lured offside and Johnny Sexton kicked the opening points.
Despite the conditions, France also looked to have a go and Kearney had to be sharp to charge down Teddy Thomas’ chip into touch and when Iain Henderson picked off Guilhem Guirado’s throw Conor Murray could clear.
Matthieu Jalibert was finding the going tough on his debut, Kearney beat him to a high ball before he kicked aimlessly and invited Earls to attack.
Ireland were forced into a spell of defending when James Ryan failed to gather Rory Best’s throw to the tail but while they struggled a little with the direct French runners, the home side ultimately threw a forward pass.
France were struggling aerially and when Thomas failed to gather Sexton’s 15th minute bomb, Murray pounced but the support didn’t get there quick enough and the scrum-half was penalised for holding on and when the men in blue couldn’t take advantage Bundee Aki gave them another chance by not rolling away after a tackle.
Jalibert kicked to touch, again Ireland averted the danger as CJ Stander intercepted Guirado’s throw but Ireland had too many men in the lineout and France passed up the opportunity with a crooked feed.
It was getting sloppy, but Ireland found comfort in their structure and when they played to their pattern they looked much the better team.
A well-worked move released Earls up the right, before a French defender was penalised for not rolling away and Sexton extended his side’s lead.
A moment of panic from Ryan almost allowed France back into it as he tried to ward off a French steal on the ground by popping the ball to Murray who wasn’t ready. Rabah Slimani kicked through and Jalibert beat Robbie Henshaw only for Kearney to get there first and Ireland managed an escape by forcing a scrum penalty out of Slimani.
France lost their young out-half just before the half-hour mark as he came off the worse from a tackle on Aki who required treatment on his knee but carried on. Nigel Owens ordered him to take a Head Injury Assessment at the bequest of the match-day doctor.
A long series of Ireland attacking phases in the French ’22 followed, but Cian Healy got himself isolated and a combination of Jefferson Poirot and Virimi Vakatawa stole the ball on the deck.
Machenaud pulled a penalty back for his side after Slimani stripped the ball from CJ Stander and Kearney was penalised for holding on after rushing to cover another kick.
Sexton cancelled that out after a moment of madness from Sebastien Vahaamahina who hit Murray with a cheap-shot and was lucky to escape with just a penalty.
So, Ireland made it to the break 9-3 in front and Sexton extended the lead further after six minutes of the second-half as Iain Henderson made two big plays -first turning the ball over after a period of French possession and then carrying hard into the blue line before Remi Lamerat was penalised for playing the ball on the deck.
Another stupid Vahaamahinana penalty gave the visitors another chance to attack but again a threatening position came to nothing as Poirot robbed Tadhg Furlong of possession – although replays suggested he didn’t release the tackler and Nigel Owens missed a penalty to Ireland.
He gave one the other way minutes later as Poirot forced Dan Leavy – on for van der Flier – to hold on and Machenaud made it a six-point game.
Some loose play from Ireland – a poor Robbie Henshaw pass and an uncharacteristic drop from Kearney – handed France a scrum on the 10m line but with their debutant props on the pitch Ireland got the shove on and Leavy and Stander combined to force a penalty their side’s way.
Again, Ireland got into the France ’22 and they should have come away with three points as Paul Gabrillagues got caught on the wrong side of a ruck, but Sexton hooked the attempt after taking an unusually long time to size up the angle.
A Henshaw forward pass gave France a scrum on half-way, but after the set-piece held firm and Geoffrey Palis made gains down the left they got into the ’22 only for Vahaamahina to stray in front of the ball-carrier and let Ireland off.
Earls went high on Vakatawa to hand another chance to the hosts, but again they let it pass.
Still, Ireland kept the French in the hunt and a Stockdale knock-on handed them another scrum as Owens deckined to give a penalty for Marco Tauleigne taking Kearney out.
The men in green survived the first wave, but then they were undone by a moment of brilliance by Thomas who took a quick throw to Antoine Dupont who beat Murray and returned the ball to the Racing winger and he scorched Kearney on the outside before swerving inside Stockdale and then out-pacing Sexton and Earls to the line.
Belleau converted and for the first time France led. It might have been a four point lead had he added a penalty after the Irish scrum sollapsed, but he left the door open.
Sexton didn’t need to be asked twice.
FRANCE – G Palis; T Thomas, R Lamerat, H Chavancyh, V Vakatawa; M Jalibert (A Belleau 30), M Machenaud (A Dupont 67); J Poirot (D Priso 55), G Guirado (capt) (A Pellissie ), R Slimani (C Gomes Sa 55); A Iturria (P Gabrillagues 61), S Vahaamahina; W Lauret (M Tauleigne 68), Y Camara, K Gourdon.
IRELAND – R Kearney; K Earls, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale (F McFadden 75); J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 61), R Best (capt) (S Cronin 68), T Furlong (John Ryan 70); I Henderson, James Ryan (D Toner 68); P O’Mahony, J van der Fliern (D Leavy 36), CJ Stander.
Referee -- N Owens (Wales)