Johnny Sexton kicked a drop goal in injury time to steer Ireland to a 15-13 win over France in Paris on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
France are back. The spirited side that put Ireland under pressure at the set pieces and at the breakdowns on Saturday was a far cry from the mob that lost four games against the Springboks in 2017.
Perhaps a new coach in Jacques Brunel has made all the difference. Perhaps the rain in and around the Stade de France was a leveller. Whatever the case, France showed remarkable tenacity to stay in the fight for most of the contest.
In the end, a last-gasp drop goal by Sexton was what separated the sides.
Ireland, the more fancied team, will breathe a sigh of relief. France should be disappointed that they didn’t close out the game after leading in the dying stages. At the same time, Brunel and company should be encouraged by the strides taken by the team.
France did enough to meet the Ireland challenge at the scrums and at the rucks. There were too many occasions, however, where they overdid the aggression and handed Ireland, and Sexton, the opportunity to score points.
France did well to stop Ireland dead in the 35th minute. The home defence was doing well to frustrate Ireland at that point, and captain Guilhem Guirado was proving particularly effective at the breakdown.
There was not enough consistency and composure, though. Shortly after Guirado forced a turnover, France gave away a penalty within Sexton’s range. As a result, Ireland went to the break with a 9-3 lead.
Maxime Machenaud narrowed the gap shortly after half-time with a well struck penalty. Ireland managed to restore the six-point advantage, though, and assume control of the contest.
France refused to give up, and in the 73rd minute, Teddy Thomas cut back off his wing, handed off a couple of would-be defenders and scored next to the posts. Machenaud converted to steer the hosts into the lead.
Sexton missed a shot on goal earlier in the second half. Not long after Thomas’s try, Machenaud pushed a penalty attempt wide.
It was that kind of game where even one miss could could cost a side the game. On this occasion, Machenaud was made to regret his mistake.
Ireland hit back strongly in the dying stages. They took the ball through 41 phases before the ball was flung back to Sexton in the pocket.
The flyhalf hit the ball well and then celebrated wildly as it sailed between the uprights. Ireland, despite producing an inferior physical performance, had managed to burgle a win and start their 2018 Six Nations campaign on a positive note.
France – Try: Teddy Thomas. Conversion: Maxime Machenaud. Penalties: Maxine Machenaud (2).
Ireland – Penalties: Johnny Sexton (4). Drop goal: Sexton.
France – 15 Geoffrey Palis, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Maxine Machenaud, 8 Kevin Gourdon, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Adrien Pelissié, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Marco Tauleigne, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Benjamin Fall.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Ian Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Dan Leavy, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joe Carbery, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images