Sexton shows his class as Ireland prove too good for France and keep Six Nations hopes alive
Ireland 19 France 9
Time to put the out-half debate to bed for a while yet. Johnny Sexton served up a reminder of his quality at the Aviva Stadium this evening as Ireland moved into Six Nations contention and protected their World Cup seeding for another week.
You’d never have known he was just back from another injury as he overcame an early wobble to control the play against the French to underline his Lions credentials.
Paddy Jackson has done an admirable job in minding the house as the Leinster man recovered from hamstring and calf injuries, but this was a world class out-half operating at the top of his game.
With him in the team, Ireland are a much better side.
Sexton got through 69 all-action minutes, scoring 11 points before his understudy came on to see the game out.
After a worrying start that saw them slip 6-0 behind, the home side regathered themselves and dominated the French for the remainder of the game and while they may come to regret not taking more of their chances to secure the four-try bonus they won’t dwell on it too much.
Alongside Sexton, Conor Murray was excellent and his first-half try turned the game in Ireland’s favour but before then it had been a sluggish start.
"Slow enough start, we had chances on their line and didn't convert. The weather made it difficult, but we stuck to it and we're still in the hunt," man of the match Murray said.
"We knew a win and nothing else would do, we've a week now to rest up and prepare for Wales.
"Johnny's been in camp all through, he slotted in really well. Hopefully he's well set for the tough tasks to come."
France signalled their intent to play from the off, moving the ball wide at every opportunity to test the Irish defence.
They made yards, but Ireland’s pressure game forced errors but when they had possession themselves the home side were in uninspiring form.
With the French hitting hard, the Irish handling was off the mark and when Johnny Sexton put a 10th minute kick directly into touch the sense of unease grew around the Aviva Stadium.
The visitors scored indirectly from the resultant lineout, Gael Fickou broke Garry Ringrose’s tackle and found Remi Lamerat, before Baptiste Serin exploited Tadhg Furlong’s decision to go into the ruck instead of guarding the side of it and only a despairing Jamie Heaslip tackle prevented the scrum-half from going all the way after he had done Rob Kearney all ends up.
Heaslip played the ball on the ground at the ruck and, when France couldn’t work the advantage, Camille Lopez stroked over the penalty to put his side in front.
Ireland continued to plod in attack and more sloppiness at ruck time invited the French into the game Rabah Slimani turned a loose ball over, before Scott Spedding kicked deep and, in trying to keep the ball alive, Simon Zebo turned an Irish 5m lineout into a French 5m scrum.
Unsurprisingly, the visiting pack licked their lips and went for the jugular, winning a penalty off the first set-piece and playing off forward ball with the second.
Lopez sent a brilliantly flat cross-kick wide for Yoann Huget who spilled the ball in Kearney’s tackle, Fickou picked up and fed the looping Lamerat who thought he’d scored but a knock-on from his centre-partner saw Nigel Owens go back for an off-side penalty from Sexton.
Instead of seven points, Lopez settled for another three.
Ireland attempted to hit back and some clever inter-play between backs and forwards allowed Ringrose make a half-break, before CJ Stander surged into the ’22 but again they didn’t protect the ball and Lamerat turned them over allowing Spedding to clear.
He didn’t get much distance from it and when France were penalised for lifting the legs in the lineout maul Sexton went to the corner.
Once again, Ireland couldn’t keep the ball and with Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw in the lineout for a pre-planned move, Sebastien Vahaamahina got a hand in forcing a scrum. They won a penalty from that and cleared their lines.
Ireland’s maul was keeping them in it and from a solid drive Sexton wrapped around Ringrose and chipped ahead for Earls. Huget won the race, but couldn’t gather and when Noa Nakataici touched down it was an Ireland scrum.
This time the penalty went the home side’s way and Rory Best called for another one.
Again, Ireland got the nudge and Murray sent Henshaw over the gainline and with a super clear-out from Ringrose and Sean O’Brien combined with some clever blocking from Heaslip, the scrum-half picked himself and forced his way over from close range.
With their sluggish start now behind them, Ireland won a penalty in front of the posts and Sexton tapped and went right catching the French off-guard. Although they couldn’t score, another penalty allowed the out-half to kick to touch.
Ireland again went to their maul and again the defenders infringed to bring it down. Owens gave captain Guihem Guirado a warning and Sexton put the ball into touch for another go.
This time, the French got their act together and repelled the drive before getting their hands on the ball and Best was penalised for holding on when the maul came down.
Another Ireland chance went-a-begging before the interval as another Sexton wraparound got the out-half into the danger-zone, before Murray almost broke free after more good work from Ringrose.
Owens put his hand out, but Ireland kept going through the phases and after the advantage ceased they knocked on.
That meant they went in just a point ahead at half-time and as the heavens opened after the resumption the home side wasted another visit to the French ’22 with a lineout over-throw and an obstruction in midfield.
However, a silly penalty concession from Serin, who held Murray off the ball, afforded Sexton a kickable penalty and this time he took it.
He further extended the lead to seven with a drop-goal as Owens played advantage as the French began to roll on their heavies and Rob Kearney was forced off with injury.
However, the difficult conditions were playing into Sexton’s hands and for a second time in the half Spedding spilled a bomb from the out-half and when the French collapsed the scrum Sexton added another penalty.
Suddenly, the game opened up and Sexton released Simon Zebo up the left and Ireland went through countless phases before Jack McGrath knocked on. Spedding countered brilliantly and Huget should have done better with Ireland scrambling and a knock-on saved Schmidt’s side’s bacon.
Sexton required treatment as play continued after shipping a late hit from his former Racing 92 colleague Eddy Ben Arous, but he was able to continue as Schmidt began to roll on his own impact players.
A brilliant Murray chip in behind put the pressure back on France and the Irish pack drove the visitors into touch to win possession back.
It was suddenly a very different game and the French were enjoying their new freedom. A loose Zebo kick invited Nakataici to attack and he gleefully obliged and only a superb Murray tackle denied Spedding as he raced on to the Fijian’s offload.
A Uini Atonio neck-roll left Ireland off the hook and Cian Healy was lucky to escape any punishment for a tip-tackle earlier in the same breathless phase of play.
Devin Toner conceded an unnecessary penalty to make it a one-score game, but Jackson nailed the insurance penalty with four minutes on the clock after French hands played the ball on the deck in front of the posts.
IRELAND -- R Kearney (A Trimble 51); K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (P Jackson 69), C Murray (K Marmion 78); J McGrath (C Healy 60), R Best (capt) (N Scannell 68), T Furlong (J Ryan 74); D Ryan (I Henderson 60, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O’Brien (P O’Mahony 68), J Heaslip.
FRANCE – S Spedding (D Camara 74); Y Huget, R Lamerat (H Chavancy 60), G Fickou, N Nakataici; C Lopez, B Serin (M Machenaud 62); C Baille (E Ben Arous 51), G Guirado (capt) (C Tolofua 62), R Slimani (U Atonio 51); S Vahaamahina (J Le Devedec 51), Y Maestri; B Le Roux, K Gourdon, L Picamoles.
Referee: N Owens (Wales)