Wednesday 12 December 2018

Steely Sexton crushes French hopes of new dawn

France 13 Ireland 15

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates with teammates after kicking the match winning drop goal. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates with teammates after kicking the match winning drop goal. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

What was billed as a new era for French rugby was ransacked by a man who endured some hardship on these shores as Johnny Sexton revelled in his redemption to snatch a win for the ages from the jaws of defeat. The tricky conditions were exactly what the home team were after: a skill leveller, but we got a moment of brilliance to finish it in memorable style.

There were a fair few empty seats at a wet and miserable Stade de France last night for what was billed as the start of a new era for French rugby. Those who stayed away may have mixed feelings on that decision. If they were French then they won't have wanted to witness first-hand how it ended. In the unlikely event of them being Irish, well, it was an historic moment missed.

Indeed, missing the target seemed the likely theme of what had unfolded for Ireland. Their plan had been to beat France by relentless, incremental progress. Inches if necessary, yielding penalties for points. The stats were all in favour of it having a happy ending: from possession to territory, to penalties won, Ireland were all over an obdurate but ordinary home side. But that same policy wasn't giving up enough points on the board. So when the game came around the final bend with France still in sight, there was cause for concern in the Irish camp.

Then, with Ireland stretched, replacement out-half Anthony Belleau - hardly a patch on the teen sensation Matthieu Jalibert who had gone off injured in the first half - kicked away possession into the Ireland 22 when he needed to keep it in hand. At that moment you felt, whatever about Ireland's struggle to get over the line, France wouldn't score a try in a fit. About 30 seconds later they scored a try.

French try scorer Teddy Thomas. Photo: Getty Images
French try scorer Teddy Thomas. Photo: Getty Images

Rob Kearney cleared the ball to touch. Not for the first time France took it quickly (never a part of Plan Ireland) - and a searing run through the Irish defence from Teddy Thomas put the home side ahead, for the first time, with just over five minutes left. Impeccable timing.

What happened next will be replayed over and over. Well, first Ireland had to survive a penalty attempt from Belleau - a handy enough kick that would have buried Ireland. Then they had to reclaim a 22 drop-out, through Iain Henderson, and subsequently a cross-kick to Keith Earls, as they worked their way through phase after phase.

Bundee Aki tries to break the French line. Photo: Brendan Moran
Bundee Aki tries to break the French line. Photo: Brendan Moran

On it went, deeper into time added on, until Sexton said enough was enough, he could see the sticks and it was a sufficiently appealing vista for him to call for the ball and drop for goal. And what a shot. A combination of bravery and skill, it was the kind of scenario kids play out in their back gardens - which for 99.9 per cent of them is where it stays. You can only imagine him, in years to come, relaying it to his grandkids, by which point the distance may have stretched back to the halfway line.

So Ireland are still on course for the Championship. With perfect timing they are at home on Saturday, with Italy the visitors. Where yesterday they couldn't get over the line, that will be a different approach and a different story.

For sure this was not the way they planned it. Joe Schmidt was seconds away from delivering a different message. Indeed, he must have been formulating the words in his head when Belleau stood over that last kick. So it goes. Truly one of the great escapes, having done a heap of work in the first place to get into a winning position - albeit never a comfortable one.

By every metric they were ahead of France, but the expected collapse of the opposition - who made a staggering 106 tackles in the first half - didn't happen.

Ireland were also working their backsides off. They lost Josh van der Flier, who damaged a medial ligament and will definitely miss next weekend, but his replacement Dan Leavy was the right man in the right place.

The possession, steady-first carrying game, had Ireland 9-3 at the break - three Sexton penalties to one from Maxime Machenaud. They might have looked more creative if the refereeing team had been more accurate in policing the breakdown, and especially its back foot.

So a lot of the ball was slow, and it didn't speed up much in the second half. Sexton pushed Ireland out to 12-3 early in the second half, at which point you felt they might get the movement they wanted on the scoreboard.

But a bad call against Tadhg Furlong for holding on after the tackle - the tackle had been complete and he had never been released - shifted the momentum, and from the French to the Irish 22 the picture changed with a successful penalty for Machenaud.

That's what allowed the Thomas try to change the game even further. Suddenly that new era for France was dawning. Then one of the most remarkable sequences in the history of Irish rugby - some 41 phases over two and a half minutes - drew a cloud over that one.

Scorers - France: Thomas try; Machenaud 2 pens, Belleau con. Ireland: Sexton 4 pens, dp gl.

France: G Palis; T Thomas, R Lamerat, H Chavancy, V Vakatawa; M Jalibert (A Belleau 29), M Machenaud (A Dupont 65 (M Machenaud 76); J Poirot (D Priso 55), G Guirado (capt), R Slimani (C Gomes Sa 55), A Iturria (P Gabrillagues 61), S Vahaamahina, W Lauret (M Tauleigne 65), K Gourdon, Y Camara.

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 (J Ryan 68), I Henderson, J Ryan, (D Toner 68), P O'Mahony, CJ Stander, J van der Flier (D Leavy 37).

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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