Sexton kicks Ireland to victory
Johnny Sexton negotiated two bloody clashes of heads with Mathieu Bastareaud to mastermind Ireland's stubborn 18-11 RBS 6 Nations victory over France in Dublin.
Sexton fired 15 points in Ireland's ninth consecutive victory on his return from a 12-week concussion lay-off to set up a potential Six Nations title decider with England on March 1.
Fit-again Sexton fully vindicated Ireland's decision to throw him into action after an enforced three-month absence, leaving Joe Schmidt's men and England the only unbeaten teams in the tournament.
France lock Romain Taofifenua bundled in for a late try to set up a frenetic finish, but reigning champions Ireland held firm to keep their title defence on track.
Former France star Laurent Benezech branded Ireland's decision to field Sexton a "big mistake" as pressure mounted in midweek.
Ireland provided evidence they had refused to risk their star asset in first-round action against Italy in a terse Friday night statement.
When Sexton himself had chance to vindicate his selection, however, the former Leinster playmaker offered the most compelling argument of all.
Now the Ireland juggernaut rolls on under taskmaster boss Schmidt, with the also unbeaten England pitching up in Dublin in two weeks' time.
Sexton vowed in the week the "first tackle will get me into the game" after all the talk of France sending battering-ram centre Bastareaud down his channel.
Ireland's 29-year-old fly-half was as good as his word when that first challenge came, enveloping Toulon's express-train midfielder through the much-vaunted choke tackle tactic.
Those partisan outside observers who had predicted pandemonium when 17-stone Bastareaud pounded into Sexton were left confounded as Ireland's peerless pivot forced a telling turnover.
Sexton consolidated his unflustered start by slotting a tricky penalty to hand Ireland first blood, before Camille Lopez levelled.
Collected conductor Sexton responded in kind to edge Ireland 6-3 ahead as Guilhem Guirado spoiled Ireland's ruck ball illegally.
France were hounded by the choke tackle, Sexton constraining Bastareaud again, and Rory Best forcing another turnover.
Sexton and Lopez traded penalties to leave Ireland 9-6 ahead, the hosts battling to diffuse France's preclusion for everything off-the-cuff.
Sexton's fourth goal moved Ireland 12-6 ahead, and so the scores stayed until the break.
Kearney hurtled on to Sexton's searching Garryowen to launch Ireland's first attack of the second half, but a knock-on in Ireland's 22 stymied the move.
Bastareaud felled Sexton in a nasty-looking but unintentional clash of heads, and both players had to leave the field for blood injuries.
Both men copped cuts above their eyes, and a fair old clattering.
France replaced their entire front-row in the 50th minute, sending the Six Nations' heaviest man, Uini Atonio, into the fray.
Ian Madigan edged Ireland's lead to 15-6 from the tee with Sexton still receiving treatment, before France seized the initiative.
Les Bleus' power replacements added tempo and bite to the visitors, who ground into the home 22, but Peter O'Mahony forced a vital turnover.
France lock Pascal Pape kneed Jamie Heaslip in a ruck and was sin-binned after video review.
Bastareaud returned to the fray while Ireland quashed an attempted France break, allowing the break in play for Sexton to step back into action too.
Sexton raced close straight away, only to fire a pass straight into Jared Payne's face, allowing France to clear their lines.
Ireland hooker Best was sin-binned for a trip just past the hour, but Lopez shanked the resulting penalty.
Best's yellow card buoyed France into a string of attacks, only for Ireland to hold firm once more.
Ireland sent their front-row cavalry into action and gained immediate scrum dividend, winning a penalty to clear their lines.
Ireland edged forward, forced a penalty and Sexton duly stretched the home lead to 18-6.
The home resistance could not hold, however, replacement lock Romain Taofifenua claiming his first Six Nations try.
Lopez scuffed the attempted conversion, leaving Ireland leading 18-11.
Full-back Kearney's fly-hack clearance denied France once more, with Sexton again clashing heads with Bastareaud and needing his stitches tidied up.
By this stage Ireland were desperately battling France's all-out onslaught, with Les Bleus liable to strike on any phase.
France forced their attack until overtime in the final play, only for Simon Zebo to force Yoann Huget into touch, sealing the victory.