Brian O’Driscoll walks away a champion
Jonathan Sexton steps up as the great man steps down on a famous night in Paris
All hail the chief. Not Brian O’Driscoll nor Paul O’Connell but Jonathan Sexton is central cog in Ireland’s success in Joe Schmidt’s first season.
Sexton didn’t finish the game, having been knocked out trying to tackle the enormous Mathieu Bastareaud on 68 minutes. But he left the stage as it finished having registered 17 points to construct a 22-20 lead.
Six Nations champions for the first time since 2009 then. And before that 1985. These days are like gold dust to Irish rugby and to win it in Paris, on O’Driscoll’s last stand, makes this one for the ages.
The greatest player the country has ever seen may have retired this evening but the future looks as bright as it has ever been. Because of Sexton and Iain Henderson and what is coming behind them.
The difference at half-time was the Racing Metro 92 halfbacks.
Maxime Machenaud’s accuracy and the lack thereof from Sexton.
But he will be eternally forgiven and revered.
This Six Nations title is down to him more than anyone and if not for an off day at Twickenham it could have been a Grand Slam.
Sexton left five points out on the Stade de France turf. Granted, he cleverly stepped inside Bastareaud for Ireland’s first try to reel in Machenaud quality strikes in the second and 15th minutes.
It was a thrilling score born out of Ireland’s superiority in the scrum and a lovely one handed offload by Chris Henry.
Ireland were humming but Sexton couldn’t convert.
No matter. Another scrum penalty from Steve Walsh (who has now atoned for 2007 against France at Croke Park) on 25 minutes and Andrew Trimble was over for the second try. The linking roles came from a darting carry by O’Driscoll and clean break by Conor Murray before he offloaded to put the Ulster winger away.
Sexton converted to make it 12-6 and the decent pockets of Irish in this cavernous arena began to dream. And sing.
Rob Kearney was at his imperious best, grabbing a high ball away from Pascal Pape. Gordon D’Arcy was also racking up his usual double figure tackle count, atoning for an early miss on the rampaging Bastareaud with a solid hit (discussions in the press box presumed the upright approach of Irish tacklers was to deny France the crowd invigorating offload game).
Highlights from Paris
Then, in a moment of brilliance, as can happen in Paris, the game swung back France’s way.
Their try was created by an inch perfect cross field kick from Remi Tales which saw Yoann Huget leap over Rob Kearney and flick the ball to Brice Dulin as the despairing Dave Kearney failed to nudge the fullback into touch.
Machenaud stitched the near touchline conversion and France were 13-12 ahead.
Ireland still had plenty going for them. Louis Picamoles appeared to break Nicolas Mas’ arm. Thomas Domingo also didn’t return for the second half but the arrival of Vincent Debaty hardly weakened the French frontrow.
In fact it turned the scrum tide back France’s way.
The Sexton penalty miss on the stroke of half-time, at that moment, seemed like a crushing blow. He took an age to hit it and really should have nailed it. Dark memories of the New Zealand game resurfaced.
The boot may have malfunctioned, albeit temporarily, but his contributions around the field won Ireland this match.
His second try on 45 minutes came directly off his massive hit on Bastareaud, ensuring the offload bobbled out of Huget’s grip to a flying Rob Kearney. Murray then Sexton flung it wide and Trimble burst the line. He fed O’Driscoll a fraction early, allowing Dulin to make the try saving tackle.
But the most remarkable sight of all was O’Connell being the first forward on the scene, the captain carried a few inches before Murray put Sexton racing under the posts.
His conversion was sure and true.
Seriously though, a 53rd minute penalty on his dodgy right side, despite taking what again seemed like a lifetime, bisected the uprights and Ireland had constructed a 22-13 lead.
In Paris of all places.
The Irish fans below had gone all tribal.
Then they got very nervous.
But the problem now was the French DNA; losing to Ireland simply doesn’t figure in their consciousness.
Multiple phases after a poor kick by Murray, Dimitri Szarzewski carried Sexton on his back to touch the post. That was enough for Walsh to award the try. Machenaud’s conversion made it a two point game, 22-20.
Ireland, unlike the English and All Black games, surely needed a score in the last quarter to prevail.
Anything. Or nothing from France.
The wonder was whether they could improve as a team in such a short space of time from those scaring experiences.
Disaster followed. Fergus McFadden had just replaced D’Arcy when Bastareaud’s forearm knocked Sexton clean out. The big centre had the good grace to stand over the Ireland outhalf and call for a break in play.
Ian Madigan arrived at outhalf which meant O’Driscoll would need to play the full 80. No problem.
The scrum, once Ireland’s primary weapon, had turned the way of Debaty. He was devouring Marty Moore and when he screwed the young prop into the dirt it seemed certain that Jean-Marc Doussain - in for Machenaud - would gift England the championship.
He missed. Somehow he missed.
France weren’t finished but after a thrilling last gasp raid Walsh deemed Pascal Papé’s final pass to Chouly to be forward. No try. Scrum Ireland. France turned it over but some monstrous defending ensured O’Driscoll leaves the test arena as a champion.
Scoring sequence – 2 mins: M Machenaud pen, 0-3; 15 mins: M Machenaud pen, 0-6; 21 mins: J Sexton try, 5-6; 26 mins: A Trimble try, 10-6; J Sexton conv, 12-6; B Dulin try, 12-11; M Machenaud conv, 12-13. Half-time. 45 mins: J Sexton try, 17-13; J Sexton conv, 19-13; 53 mins: J Sexton pen, 22-13; D Choly try, 22-18; M Machenaud conv, 22-20.