6N: Ireland holds out to defeat France 18-11 in Dublin
DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland endured a furious finish from France to prevail 18-11 on Saturday and set up a home showdown next with England between the Six Nations’ last two unbeaten teams.
Ireland looked rock solid in the second match of its title defense at Lansdowne Road, even while up 18-6 with 14 men and 12 minutes to go.
Then substitute lock Romain Taofifenua rumbled over the Irish tryline with barely 10 minutes left as France’s second-half revival kept rising in intensity. But France ran out of time, and rued flyhalf Camille Lopez’s missed five points off his kicking boot.
“If we played the rest of the match like we played the last 15 minutes, we would have won easily,” France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said. “But we really only played solid, confident rugby in the last 15 minutes, and that is not good enough.”
Lopez’s counterpart, Jonathan Sexton, playing his first match following a 12-week stand-down for multiple concussions, kept Ireland in front with five penalties from five goalkicks, and twice survived banging into French bowling ball Mathieu Bastareaud.
While Sexton was having his bloodied forehead cleaned up after the first knock, replacement Ian Madigan knocked over Ireland’s only other penalty kick.
Beating France in a bruiser kept Ireland on pace with England, which became the bettors’ title favorite after beating Wales in Cardiff, then dealing to Italy 47-17 earlier Saturday.
Against England in two weekends, Ireland will try equal the 10 consecutive test wins of their 2002-03 predecessors. That run was ended at Lansdowne Road by the 2003 England Grand Slam-winning side.
“Every time we beat (France), it is massive. But that game against England is going to be another level,” captain Paul O’Connell said. “It is going to be a challenge like not many of us have faced before.”
Ireland was well in control after a first half featuring defense and not a single line break. Sexton converted four penalties given for ruck offenses, while Lopez hit both of his opportunities.
Ireland’s lead in penalties received was cancelled by turnovers won by France.
France started to enjoy more success with a straight substitution of its entire front row in the 50th minute, including Taofifenua. The scrum gave the French a dominant platform, even in a seven-man shove after Pascal Pape was sin-binned for kneeing Jamie Heaslip in the back. Heaslip left 15 minutes later, limping in pain.
The many thousands of French packed into a 55,000-strong sellout crowd cheered wildly as the Irish defense finally started to wilt following a yellow card for hooker Rory Best for tripping in the 61st.
Sexton kicked Ireland further ahead with his fifth penalty, then finally France broke through after a 12-pass blitz. France stretched the Irish wide right, and quickly back left, where fullback Rob Kearney found himself isolated against three French players and unable to stop Taofifenua. Lopez hooked the conversion across the posts to leave Ireland with a seven-point cushion.
The cushion held up thanks to gutsy defense to fulltime.
France led the tackle count at halftime, but by the end Ireland had to make 55 more tackles. Robbie Henshaw led the team count with 15, one more than O’Connell and flanker Sean O’Brien, playing his first test in 15 months after two shoulder reconstructions.
“We need a breather after that,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said. “We had to make a mountain of tackles in that last quarter.”
Sexton, named man of the match, also didn’t shirk his duty. Bastareaud twice dealt blows to Sexton’s forehead, first in a straight clash of heads after halftime that bloodied both men, and again in the final five minutes with a forearm to the wounded area.
Sexton said he saw no malicious intent from the Frenchman, and the two even laughed about it. Sexton, sporting a badly bruised and swollen left eye, said he passed a locker-room concussion test between hits.
“It looked worse than it was, just a few stitches,” Sexton said. “I didn’t feel any pain in the head and felt fine afterward.”
Schmidt said part of the problem was that Sexton never backs down from contact.
“I really don’t like to see Jonny taking those kinds of hits, but that’s Jonny for you,” he said with a smile. “He made it very clear that he wasn’t coming out long.”