RBS 6 Nations
Ireland 19-9 France
Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton stamped their class all over a pulsating Aviva Stadium showdown with France to keep Ireland’s championship hopes alive.
Guy Noves’ outfit may be a work in progress, but they brought typical swagger and dash to Dublin, particularly in a scintillating opening 20 minutes they controlled.
Murray’s try on the half-hour cancelled out a brace of Camille Lopez penalties to leave the hosts ahead at the break, and Sexton’s boot guided them home on the turnaround.
The Leinster out-half kicked two penalties and a gorgeous drop-goal to put his men 16-6 ahead, but after weathering a flurry of Irish attacks, France set up a nervy climax with another Lopez penalty six minutes from time.
Paddy Jackson, on as a replacement for Sexton, settled any nerves after the French came off their feet in the closing stages and Joe Schmidt’s men will head to Wales in two weeks looking to bring this title down to the wire.
If Ireland were unsure which France would turn up in Dublin, they got their answer in a frantic opening.
The visitors controlled the early exchanges, Lopez opening the scoring off the tee on 12 minutes and then doubling his side’s lead with another penalty six minutes later.
In between that Les Bleus thought they’d a try on the board when Remi Lamerat galloped over but a Gael Fickou knock-on in the build-up was spotted by the TMO and the hosts got off the hook.
Ireland passed up two chances to put points of the board by kicking to the corner, but on both occasions it backfired, the aggressive French defence holding firm, until Murray found a way through, burrowing over after a well-worked scrum.
That gave the crowd the lift they craved, and only desperate French defending prevented a second try before the whistle.
Sexton gave Ireland some breathing space with a penalty five minutes into the second half, Baptiste Serin the guilty party for France, holding on to his man off the ball.
The Leinster fly-half had the fans purring soon after, executing a beautiful drop-goal in the teeming rain to stretch Ireland’s lead to 13-6.
More French indiscipline off the scrum gave him another opportunity to add to his tally, which he did, splitting the posts 29 metres out with 54 minutes on the clock.
That triggered a wave of Irish attacks. Just before the hour mark Ireland put together 19 phases before a knock-on finally halted their momentum, with France launching a blistering and then knocking on themselves.
France, through the direct-running Noa Nakaitaci and tenacious Maxime Machenaud kept fighting, and Lopez’s penalty seven minutes from time left a try between the teams.
The tension was palpable, but when France came off their feet, Jackson settled it with a confident kick that boxed off a crucial, steely victory.
Not always pretty, but the ends justified the means. Ireland can still win this championship; France are now playing for pride.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 12 mins Lopez pen 0-3; 19 mins Lopez pen 0-6; 30 mins Murray try, Sexton con 7-6; (half-time 7-6); 46 mins Sexton pen 10-6; 50 mins Sexton drop goal 13-6; 55 mins Sexton pen 16-6; 74 mins Lopez pen 16-9; 74 mins Jackson pen 19-9.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt); Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Devin Toner (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), Seán O’Brien (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: Andrew Trimble (Ulster) for Kearney (51 mins), Cian Healy (Leinster) for McGrath, Iain Henderson (Ulster) for D Ryan (61 mins), Niall Scannell (Munster) for Best, John Ryan (Munster) for Furlong, Peter O’Mahony (Munster) for O’Brien (all 68 mins), Paddy Jackson (Ulster) for Sexton (69 mins), Kieran Marmion (Connacht) for Murray (78 mins).
FRANCE: Scott Spedding (Clermont Auvergne); Yoann Huget (Toulouse), Rémi Lamerat (Clermont Auvergne), Gael Fickou (Toulouse), Noa Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvernge); Camille Lopez (Clermont Auvergne), Baptiste Serin (Bordeaux-Begles); Cyril Baille (Toulouse), Guilhem Guirado (Toulon, capt), Rabah Slimani (Stade Francais); Sébastien Vahaamahina (Clermont Auvergne), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse); Bernard le Roux (Racing 92), Kevin Gourdon (La Rochelle), Louis Picamoles (Northampton).
Replacements: Uini Atonio (La Rochelle) for Slimani, Eddy Ben Arous (Racing 92) for Baille, Julien Devedec (Brive) for Vahaamahina (all 51 mins), Charles Ollivon (Toulon) for le Roux, Henry Chavancy (Racing 92) for Lamerat (both 60 mins), Christopher Tolofua (Toulouse) for Guirado, Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92) for Serin (62 mins), Djibril Camara (Stade Francais) for Spedding (74 mins).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
Assistant referees: Luke Pearce (England), Dan Jones (Wales).
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia).