France 13 Ireland 15
One swing of Johnny Sexton’s right boot has changed everything. Ireland made desperately heavy weather of putting away a gutsy but limited French team in the Parisian rain, and this was altogether more fraught than they would have liked.
This was in part of Sexton’s own making, when missing an insurance penalty that might have put Ireland two scores clear, before France conjured a try out of nothing.
And so it looked for all the world that despite dominating territory and possession (68 per cent both counts), and taking a stranglehold on the game, when Ireland failed to pull clear they became nervier and edgier. It was not a particularly creative or fluent performance, with plenty of grunt and application, and until the fraught final quarter plenty of efficiency and discipline.
But having seemingly given a sucker an even break, Ireland will take enormous satisfaction from digging so deep to salvage only a third win here since 1972, reclaiming a 22 metre restart through the magnificent Iain Henderson before going through 41 phases for Sexton to kick one of the mightiest long-range drop goals to win a game in this competition from 45 metres.
A nouveau France defended with spirit and obduracy, even if they looked limited. They were perhaps made to look so by the degree to which Ireland controlled and monopolised possession, with Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, CJ Stander (25 carries), Cian Healy, Henderson and James Ryan typifying Ireland's work-rate. At the back, Rob Kearney was largely imperious, and Keith Earls looked dangerous, but lived off scraps.
Ireland did occasionally find some space - or at any rate softer yards out wide - but, whether dictated by the weather and the greasy pill, were content to mostly to recycle off one-out runners and wear Les Bleus down. In a stifling game, France made the only two line breaks.
Ultimately Ireland snatched the win from the jaws of defeat, as the home crowd roared their team to one last defensive set. They were left shell-shocked, as the entire Irish squad converged on Sexton and smothered him back in the Irish 22.
No-one in the 78,878 attendance could quite believe it.
On a cold day in Paris the forecast of showers gave way to fairly persistent rain and, although it had lightened come kick-off, the conditions were still dank and dark, with a glistening but sodden surface.
Despite France’s dismal run, and almost zero confidence of a home win amongst the French media, the home supporters seemed buoyed by a remodelled if inexperienced French team.
Not that the PA pre-match fan fare allowed for any crowd atmosphere to be gauged, although there appeared to be a good Irish crowd in attendance judging by Ireland’s Call, before the usual hearty rendition of La Marseillaise.
Ireland had to settle into the game quickly, and be uber efficient Conor Murray's box kick from the kick-off was well chased and Murray himself tackled Yacouba Camara into touch. Best's first throw located James Ryan at the tail, and Sexton went out the back for Aki to beat Virimi Vakatawa quite easily for Stockdale to link with Earls. When Sébastien Vahaamahina was offside at the ruck, Sexton kicked the game's opening points.
Kearney then chased and won an up-and-under by Sexton, and Earls easily read a cheeky chip up the middle by Jalibert, the 19-year-old displaying the temperament as well as the creativity which has marked his stunning rise.
Les bleus, encouraged at each of the early put-ins by the home crowd, went after a Irish scrum, but Kevin Gourdon wasted a free kick by fumbling his attempted quick tap.
Ireland’s next three pointer emanated from a great take in the air by Murray, Ireland then narrowing the French midfield before Sexton went out the back for Kearney to hit the line and link with Earls. After Henderson trucked it up, Camara was penalised for not rolling away, and Sexton made it 6-0.
Ireland would have settled for 6-0 entering the second quarter. Save for a few boos, the quietness of the French crowd reflected well on Ireland’s start.
However, the need for accuracy was demonstrated at an under-resourced Irish ruck, which prompted Ryan to pop the ball up to Murray. He was nailed by Maxime Machenaud, Rabah Slimani kicked through and Rob Kearney tidied up, as he does, by gathering on the slide and bouncing to his feet.
After Slimani was then penalised for pulling Cian Healy to the ground at the next scrum, Ireland again employed Aki to truck it up, as he'd also been doing efficiently, usually winning every collision. He won this one too, ploughing through Jalibert. There was a clash of knees, prompting Nigel Owens to stop the game as both players were being treated, and he then insisted Jalibert went for an HIA.
Ireland went for the jugular then, attacking mostly through one-off runners as Stander made one good rumble over the gain line. But after 13 phases they lost their shape and ran out of numbers when Healy was isolated by Vakatawa's tackle and Jefferson Poirot helped to effect the turnover.
There was the unusual sight of Kevin Gourdon ripping the ball off Stander and when Rob Kearney attempted to run the ball back he was tackled well by Chavancy, and Gourdon was quickly over the ball to earn the penalty with which Maxime Machenaud opened France’s account.
Owens was on hand to stop the game again when van der Flier went down injured, and left the fray to have his right thigh iced and be replaced by Dan Leavy. On Ireland went through the phases, trying a few inside balls into traffic, although Aki made good yardage, before Vahaamahina lined up Murray as he was about to pick up ruck ball.
The lock couldn’t resist the temptation, inanely ploughing into the Irish scrumhalf, and Sexton made it 9-3 just before the break. This was greeted solemnly, with a ripple of boos. Sweet music to Irish ears, albeit it had been hard yakka for the modest lead.
A tad disconcertingly, it had followed the exact same scoring pattern until the same point two years ago, when France won 10-9.
That was quickly changed after Henderson won a fine turnover penalty and when he trucked it up after the maul was held up, Vahaamahina was done for offside and Sexton made it 12-3. The French lock, something of a serial offender, repeated the offence soon after.
Ireland went through the phases again, 15 of them this time, after Henshaw trucked it up, and were inching closer to then line when Poirot ripped the ball off Furlong and Machenaud kicked downfield, where Earls gathered and used his footwork to ease any danger. But when Dan Leavy was pinged for holding on, Machenaud made it a six-point game again.
Cue a rendition of La Marseillaise as scrums were re-set as the home crowd, much like the home team, were forced to live off scraps.
When Guilhem Guirado was pinged for not rolling away, Sexton's miss from 15 metres to the right of the posts failed to give Ireland the two-score breathing space again. Sexton's pass forward then resulted in France attacking wide off a scrum, and Vakatawa beating Earls on the inside. Soon after, Earls was penalised for tackling the big winger too high.
This had long since entered squeaky bum time. Eyeing the prize, Ireland were becoming edgier in their play.
France just needed one big play to go in front, and out of nothing, as they do, manufactured it in the 72nd minute. It came from a quick throw, as they also do, when Kearney found a long touch and the chase was poor. Teddy Thomas threw infield to Belleau, who returned it to Thomas as Murray attempted the tackle, and the winger skinned Kearney on the outside before veering inside Stockdale, with Sexton and Earls unable to stop the winger sliding over the line.
Suddenly everything was going France's way. When Earls failed to gather a high ball, it still seemed to go backwards but Owens, a long way off the play, adjudged the ball had gone forward. This gave France an attacking scrum inside the last five minutes, at which John Ryan was penalised for going down. But Belleau missed the 40 metre penalty to the left.
This was Ireland’s break.
Henderson, at the apex of a storming game., brilliantly reclaimed Sexton’s short 22 metre restart, and entering the 78th minute, Ireland begun a remorseless last drive from just outside their 22. Initially, they struggled to make halfway, until Sexton risked a pinpoint cross kick to Earls who gather and danced and carried, while critically Kearney was there to effect the clear out.
On and on they continued, mostly one-off runners again, with Henderson, Aki and Stander again continually offering themselves for carries, and everyone took turns at clearing out. For 41 phases. Then Sexton, who at one point in the drive was stretching his left leg while on the ground, called for the pass from Murray. He was fully 45 metres out, and to the left of the posts, but he gave it everything. Just watching him rather than the ball, he was the first in the ground to raise his arms, to be followed by the pockets of Irish supporters and then, most importantly, Owens. Yet another post-80 minute dramatic endgame for Owens, who had been the referee when Ronan O’Gara landed his after 40-plus phases for Munster against Northampton.
The clock stopped on 82 minutes, 47 seconds. Talk about one kick changing a storyline.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Sexton pen 0-3; 22 mins Sexton 0-6; 36 mins Machenaud pen 3-6; 39 mins Sexton pen 3-9; (half-time 3-9); 47 mins Sexton pen 3-12; 54 mins Machenaud pen 6-12; 74 mins Thomas try, Belleau con 13-12; 83 mins Sexton drop goal 13-15.
France: Geoffrey Palis (Castres); Teddy Thomas (Racing 92), Rémi Lamerat (Clermont Auvergne), Henry Chavancy (Racing 92), Virimi Vakatawa (Racing 92); Matthieu Jalibert (Bordeaux-Bègles), Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92); Jefferson Poirot (Bordeaux-Bègles), Guilhem Guirado (Toulon) (capt), Rabah Slimani (Clermont Auvergne), Sébastien Vahaamahina (Clermont Auvergne), Arthur Iturria (Clermont Auvergne), Wenceslas Lauret (Racing 92), Yacouba Camara (Montpellier), Kévin Gourdon (La Rochelle). Replacements: Anthony Belleau (Toulon) for Jalibert (30 mins), Dany Priso (La Rochelle) for Poirot, Cedate Gomes Sa (Racing 92) for Slimani (55 mins), Paul Gabrillagues (La Rochelle) for Iturria (61 mins), Marco Tauleigne (Bordeaux-Bègles) for Lauret, Antoine Dupont (Toulouse) for Machenaud (both 66 mins), Adrien Pelissié (Bordeaux-Bègles) for Guirado (74 mins), Machenaud for Dupont (76 mins). Not used: Benjamin Fall (Montpellier).
Ireland: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Peter O'Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster). Replacements: Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster) for van der Flier (37 mins), Jack McGrath (St. Mary's College/Leinster) for Healy (61 mins), Sean Cronin (St. Mary's College/Leinster) for Best (68 mins), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) for James Ryan (both 68 mins), John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Furlong (70 mins), Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Stockdale (75 mins). Not used: Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster), Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)