Ireland stayed in Six Nations title contention with a 26-14 victory against France in Dublin on Sunday. DYLAN JACK reports.
The bonus-point win takes Ireland up to 14 points on the log, a point behind England and two behind Wales. Ireland will travel to Cardiff to play Wales in the final round next weekend, with England hosting Scotland.
This Dublin clash was largely one-sided as Ireland forced France to make over 100 tackles in the first half, when the game was effectively won by the hosts.
Ireland suffered a blow before kick-off as the experienced Rob Kearney was ruled out with a calf injury. Jordan Larmour came into the starting XV at fullback, with Andrew Conway taking his place on the bench.
The hosts applied plenty of early kick pressure on the French back three and won a 5m lineout. After a sustained period of pressure, they won another penalty and again opted for a lineout from which captain Rory Best, in what could be his last competitive appearance at home, went over in the corner.
Ireland chose to keep their attack tight, operating close around the fringes of the ruck in an attempt to suck in as many defenders as possible, while Sexton looked to test the French wings under the high ball whenever possible.
The French were their own worst enemies at times and their back three struggled to deal with the kick pressure. This was no more accentuated than when scrumhalf Antoine Dupont lost concentration behind a ruck on the tryline, which nearly led to Cian Healy adding a second try.
While the home side enjoyed close to 90% territory in the opening quarter, the French defence stood up strongly and made a couple of turnovers in crucial positions. The dam wall did eventually burst as, again from a strong driving maul, a clever wraparound by Sexton allowed the flyhalf to run onto a pass from Garry Ringrose to get Ireland’s second.
Ireland were in again just before the break as a number of strong forward carries ground down the French defence, with replacement flank Jack Conan running through a tackle from Guilhem Guirado to dot down.
France began the second half with renewed intensity and managed to build a few phases and get themselves into Irish territory.
They started to force Ireland to work defensively and put pressure on the hosts at the breakdown. However, they were disrupted by a number of solid collisions from the Irish forwards and were not helped by a couple of knock-ons in promising positions.
As they do best, Ireland turned defence into attack through a brilliant kick downfield, which allowed them to win a 5m scrum. Another period of sustained pressure eventually saw the home side grab their bonus-point try as CJ Stander broke from behind a maul and put a good inside pass in for Keith Earls, who split the defence and slid over the line.
With an eye on their next clash in Cardiff, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt rang the changes, taking both Conor Murray and Sexton off while also bringing on a new front row.
That did not disrupt the hosts too much as France started to run out of steam from their efforts in the first half and received a further blow when replacement tighthead Dorian Aldegheri was sent to the sin bin for repeated infringements.
To their credit, not only did France hold out, but they managed to grab a couple of consolation tries when Gregory Alldritt broke the line and fed Yoann Huget to sprint in, before hooker Camille Chat went over from the back of a maul.
Ireland – Tries: Rory Best, Jonathan Sexton, Jack Conan, Keith Earls. Conversions: Sexton (3).
France – Tries: Yoann Huget, Camille Chat. Conversion: Baptiste Serin (2).
Ireland – 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 John Ryan, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Jack Conan, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Andrew Conway.
France – 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Félix Lambey, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Demba Bamba, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Gregory Alldritt, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Maxime Medard.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images