JOHNNY Sexton negotiated two bloody clashes of heads with Mathieu Bastareaud to mastermind Ireland’s stubborn 18-11 RBS Six Nations victory over France in Dublin.
Sexton fired 15 points in Ireland’s ninth consecutive victory on his return from a 12-week concussion lay-off to set up a potential Six Nations title decider with England on 1 March.
Fit-again Sexton fully vindicated Ireland’s decision to throw him into action after an enforced three-month absence, leaving Joe Schmidt’s men and England the only unbeaten teams in the tournament.
France lock Romain Taofifenua bundled in for a late try to set up a frenetic finish, but reigning champions Ireland held firm to keep their title defence on track.
Former France star Laurent Benezech branded Ireland’s decision to field Sexton a “big mistake” as pressure mounted in midweek.
Ireland provided evidence they had refused to risk their star asset in first-round action against Italy in a terse Friday night statement.
When Sexton himself had chance to vindicate his selection, however, the former Leinster playmaker offered the most compelling argument of all.
Sexton kept Ireland in front with five penalties from five goalkicks, and twice survived banging heads with French bowling ball Bastareaud.
While Sexton was having his bloodied forehead cleaned up after the first knock, replacement Ian Madigan knocked over Ireland’s only other penalty Taoififenua rumbled over the Irish tryline and France’s second-half revival kept rising in intensity. But Les Bleus ran out of time, and stand-off Camille Lopez missed five points off his kicking boot. Ireland hooker Rory Best was sin-binned for a trip just past the hour, but Lopez shanked the resulting penalty and also failed to convert the try.
Now the Ireland juggernaut rolls on under taskmaster boss Schmidt, with the also unbeaten England pitching up in Dublin in two weeks’ time.