France 13-15 Ireland: Johnny Sexton drop goal beats Les Bleus in dead time
By Michael Cantillon at Stade de France
Last Updated: 04/02/18 9:59pm
A 40 metre drop goal from Johnny Sexton with the very last kick of the game - and after 41 phases - ensured Ireland got their Six Nations campaign off to a winning start at the Stade de France, beating France 15-13 on Saturday.
An outstanding individual try from France wing Teddy Thomas with seven minutes remaining looked set to give France the perfect start under Jacques Brunel, but a penalty miss from replacement fly-half Anthony Belleau left the door ajar for Ireland to snatch victory.
Four Sexton penalties had put Ireland in a seemingly commanding position, but it was an attempt missed with 18 minutes to go by the Ireland fly-half which looked likely to haunt him and Joe Schmidt's side come full-time.
France scrum-half Maxime Machenaud also kicked two penalty efforts for the home side, but Les Bleus' ill-discipline proved costly throughout the match.
In an error-plagued game of very few clear-cut opportunities, neither side protected possession well enough when in the opposition 22, with Ireland particularly guilty of coughing up the ball when well positioned. But when they needed to, they somehow maintained composure to win it almost three minutes into dead time.
Ireland next host Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday February 10, while France travel to Murrayfield to face Scotland - who lost their opener 34-7 at Wales - the day after.
Ireland settled into the game quickly and after just three minutes they were in front 3-0 via a Sexton penalty.
A flowing team move off their first lineout on halfway - a textbook Schmidt midfield wrap around - involved Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls, and saw France breach the offside line to give the Irish fly-half an easy shot from close range.
On the 10-minute mark, France enjoyed their first prolonged spell of possession in the Irish half, after an Ireland lineout near their own 10-metre line had gone awry. Ireland's defence withstood heavy pressure, however, and the attack ended with Geoffrey Palis throwing a forward pass to Virimi Vakatawa.
Ireland doubled their advantage in the 21st minute as France flanker Yacouba Camara was pinged for going off his feet at the breakdown. Sexton made no mistake with the kick, which again was a simple effort from around 24 metres out.
On 26 minutes, a loose ball in midfield was hacked on by France's 19-year-old fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, causing consternation in the Irish defence, but Rob Kearney was across to sweep things up, and Conor Murray there to clear soon after.
Five minutes later, it was Ireland's turn not to convert a sustained period of pressure in the opposition 22 as Vakatawa - with support from prop Jefferson Poirot - made a phenomenal turnover on the ground for France.
Machenaud reduced the deficit on 35 minutes after France skipper Guilhem Guirado earned a superb breakdown penalty, jackling over Kearney, who was penalised for not releasing.
Two minutes from the break, Sexton knocked over his third successful penalty, as France lock Sebastien Vahaamahina took out Ireland scrum-half Murray before he had played the ball.
Six minutes into the second period, the boot of Sexton stretched the lead out to 12-3 after Vahaamahina came through and kicked the ball out of the ruck.
On 53 minutes, France struck back through Machenaud again after loosehead Poirot won yet another penalty for France at the breakdown.
The penalty tit-for-tat looked set to continue with Sexton presented another kickable opportunity just past the hour mark when Guirado failed to roll away, but the fly-half's kick was put wide - just his second penalty miss for Ireland since the 2015 World Cup.
From there, France grew in confidence as Ireland continued to make mistakes in possession and with seven minutes left, Thomas showed tremendous acceleration to sear over for the lead.
A scrum-penalty with just two minutes of the match remaining handed France and Belleau the chance to open up a four-point lead, but his effort slipped wide.
Ireland, having reclaimed the 22 dropout through Iain Henderson, then proceeded to slowly advance up the pitch through countless phases before Sexton - who had been limping not long before - slotted the drop goal from distance, which just crept over the bar to break French hearts.
The moment of the match in terms of skill was undoubtedly Thomas' fantastic try, and in terms of drama it was Sexton's heroics. If France had gone on to claim victory then the turning point would have been Sexton's penalty miss with 18 minutes to go.
If he had put Ireland nine points ahead at that point, it would likely have put them in a commanding position to go on and claim a comfortable victory.
As such, the turning point, unfortunately, was Belleau's penalty miss with just two minutes remaining, which gave Ireland one last shot - unlikely though it seemed - to pull off the win.
Thomas' try. See all of the above. What an effort from the Racing 92 back - he has serious pace to burn.
While Ireland built up an accumulation of errors in attack, they were extremely strong defensively, giving France virtually nothing until Thomas produced his magic.
Dan Leavy also had a big impact for Ireland when he emerged off the replacements bench following Josh van der Flier's injury, regularly carrying over the gain-line.
And the Ireland team, with Sexton in particular, must be applauded for their composure and courage to win the game. The Leinsterman's cross-field kick to Keith Earls 24 phases in, with the clock already into the red, was a real highlight. What a climax.
Ireland's protection of possession and work at the breakdown was largely inadequate - verging on poor at times here.
By his own extremely high standards, Conor Murray's kicking game also lacked the desired accuracy at the Stade de France.
Schmidt will be acutely unhappy with several aspects of this display. Plenty of 'work-ons', as they say.
On the French side, their discipline let them down badly, while the injury to Jalibert on his Test debut after just 29 minutes - when he had started brightly - was a major shame.
Man of the match
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