Sexton leads Ireland past les Bleus

Date published: February 14 2015

Johnny Sexton marked his return to action with a confident display, allowing Ireland to see off a stubborn French challenge 18-11.

The Irish fly-half, after three months out, looked comfortable throughout, and his tactical kicking proved the difference between the sides.

In a game marred by indiscipline at the breakdown, Ireland played more of the game in French territory, and were able to feed of their visitors' errors to grind out the win.

Sexton kicked five penalties, with Ian Madigan also chipping in with a three-pointer, while France needed a late try from Romain Taofifenua to stay in touch.

The French fought hard in the final stages, but it was Ireland who held on for the win and set up a tantalising game against England in a fortnight's time.

The first half was an attritional affair, with Ireland taking advantage of French indiscipline to open up a 12-6 lead and Sexton showing no ill-effects from his three months off as he picked out the open spaces with his kicking game.

The Irish started keeping hold of the ball and trying to move the French pack around and they monopolised possession in the opening minutes of the game.

However at the first ruck Mike Ross went straight to his knees under pressure from Eddy Ben Arous, conceding a penalty.

That allowed France to send Mathieu Bastareaud down Sexton's channel for the first time, but the returning Irish fly-half was up to the task, clamping onto the ball to earn a scrum.

The Irish turned things around at the third scrum of the afternoon, earning a penalty which allowed them to kick into the French 22. While their maul struggled to make ground, Thierry Dusautoir was penalised, giving Sexton a first shot at goal of the afternoon. He made no mistake from wide on the left, giving Ireland a 3-0 lead after 13 minutes of play.

France responded immediately when Rob Kearney misjudged a high ball and then found himself isolated with Ben Arous earning the penalty.

From 45-metres out in front, Camille Lopez split the posts to level the scores but almost immediately Ireland were back in front.

Guilhem Guirado tried to contest a ball in a ruck as the tackler, but the ruck had already been formed and Wayne Barnes penalised him. From the right Sexton was on target to make it 6-3.

The Irish were starting to dominate possession and territory, although the French defence was holding strong.

On their first incursion into the Irish 22, France tried to get their maul going, but Ireland chose not to defend it and earned a penalty as the French were deemed offside, with Dusautoir called back as he went over. When Ben Arous was penalised at a ruck a couple of minutes later, Sexton stretched the lead to 9-3.

Meanwhile France had lost winger Teddy Thomas to an ankle injury, with Rémi Lamerat on in his place and Wesley Fofana shifted to the wing.

Still, the French were able to cut the lead back to three when Rory Best slowed the ball down in a ruck.

The contest at the breakdown was leading to lots of penalties, with the French furious as Barnes penalised them again in the 22 when they had isolated an Irish ball carrier. Sexton was never going to miss from straight in front, and he gave the home side a 12-6 lead at the break.

Ireland had the first chance of the second half when Kearney was first to an up and under on the French 22. The Irish seemed to have worked an overlap but Bastareaud got up quickly to stop Sexton, with both players forced off to get patched up after a clash of heads and resulting blood.

The home side had clearly taken control of the game, and after a long period in the French 22, they earned a penalty when Damien Chouly was caught offside, allowing Madigan to stretch the lead to 15-6.

Having brought on their big subs France started to make some ground, working their way into the Irish 22 but after the Irish had stripped the ball in a maul, France lost second row Pascal Papé to a yellow card after he entered the maul with a knee to Jamie Heaslip's back.

Ireland should have scored the first try of the game just before the hour when a powerful maul allowed them to create a huge overlap. Robbie Henshaw put down the ball in midfield with three men free outside him.

Despite being a man down in the pack, France had clearly got the upper hand in the scrum, with Ross constantly collapsing as he failed to deal with both Ben Arous and replacement Vincent Debaty. Successive penalties saw him on a final warning and allowed France's 14 men to get back into Irish territory.

After Papé's moment of stupidity, Best matched him, tripping Dusautoir in a ruck and earning ten minutes in the bin as a result. However Lopez was off-target with his penalty attempt and France were still more than a score down.

When Chouly was penalised in a lineout, Sexton added a fifth penalty but it was France who would finally score the first try with nine minutes to go. It came after some great work from the French replacements, with Uini Atonio and Debaty very involved. Eventually they created an overlap and Debaty delivered to Romain Taofifenua to go over in the corner.

The French kept battling, and had the better of the final minutes, but in the end they couldn't find a way through the Irish defence.

It was by no means pretty, but Ireland were a little sharper in the basics, with their kick-chase a level above their opponents and their ability to play most of the first half in French territory allowing them to open up a lead.

When France brought on their big guns, they finally started to make some headway, and weren't too far away from snatching a draw. Still they looked short of ideas for the second week running and need to show they have more than just powerful runners in midfield. Ireland's ambition to retain their title however remains on track, with England coming to town.

Man of the Match: He'd been out for three months, but Johnny Sexton didn't show it as he orchestrated proceedings pinning Scott Spedding back throughout the first half.

Moment of the Match: France clearly wanted to target Sexton, and on Mathieu Bastareaud's first charge they did precisely that. The Irish fly-half stood up to it and even won a turnover when the ball didn't come back. He was battered and bruised later on, but that was morale-boosting moment for the Irish early on.

Villain of the Match: Pascal Papé and Rory Best both saw yellow for stupid infringements, but overall it was fairly clean stuff.

The scorers:

For Ireland:
Pens: Sexton 5, Madigan

For France:
Try: Taofifenua
Pens: Lopez 3

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Rémi Lamerat.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

by Paul Eddison