JOHNNY Sexton’s two tries helped Brian O’Driscoll complete the fairytale ending to his international career as Ireland claimed the Six Nations title by edging out France 22-20 in Paris.
SCORERS: Ireland - Sexton (2 tries, pen, 2 cons), Trimble (try); France - Dulin (try), Szarzewski (try), Machenaud (2 con, 2 pen)
Sexton ran in two tries, missed five points with the boot and was knocked out cold trying to tackle wrecking ball centre Mathieu Bastareaud.
Ireland rebuffed a late French onslaught to claim their first Six Nations title since 2009 and just a second win in 42 years in Paris, with wing Andrew Trimble also on the scoresheet.
O’Driscoll capped his 141st and final international appearance with just a second career Six Nations title, the storybook ending so craved by the Irish nation. To his stunning Paris hat-trick in 2000, now O’Driscoll can add a stubborn, brutal refusal to be cowed.
After 15 glittering years on the world stage, the Leinster stalwart and Ireland icon can finally hang up his international boots a happy man.
Ireland were forced to weather a hefty first-quarter storm, France blasting out after criticism of scrum and line-out deficiencies.
Maxime Machenaud slotted two penalty goals to nudge France into the early lead, Bastareaud blasting through the visiting backline on three occasions.
Chris Henry’s cute offload outfoxed the home defence after smart build-up play, and Sexton caught sight of the half-gap to cut back inside and over the whitewash. The former Leinster playmaker scuffed the conversion though.
Ireland quickly doubled their try count though, thanks to another Joe Schmidt-inspired ruse.
The head coach’s wily insight has proved a feature of his first Six Nations, and his nous this time led Ireland to force space around the tackle fringes.
Big, lumbering forwards do not enjoy working into defensive position. France stuck to their typecasting, Conor Murray blasted through the gap and sent Trimble under the sticks.
And it was O’Driscoll’s straight and true drive to the gain line that set the ruse in motion.
Big, lumbering forwards love a rolling maul though, and after a textbook drive, Remi Tales chipped to the wing, Yoann Huget tapped inside at full leap and Brice Dulin had the easy run home. Machenaud’s expert touchline conversion wrestled France a 13-12 lead.
Tales tried a snap drop-goal but his effort drifted wide. Prop Nicolas Mas departed with a troublesome right arm complaint, replaced by Rabah Slimani.
Ireland pressed again after another penalty line-out, but Sexton missed his second shot at goal.
Sexton started the second half in the manner he finished the first, his risky chip easily dealt with by Gael Fickou, setting France away on a trademark counter-attack.
Sexton quickly scotched those errors and the five missed points from his, and Ireland’s, minds though, racing in for his second and his side’s third try of the night. In one blitzkrieg swoop, suddenly Ireland were once again sure of themselves.
Ireland bullied France with their textbook maul, winning a penalty for Sexton to shoot at goal. This time there was to be no mistake, the 28-year-old firing home with assurance renewed thanks to try number two, to put Ireland 22-13 to the good.
France battered Ireland’s final defences time and again as the hosts launched a sustained assault after a penalty line-out in the 22. O’Connell conceded a penalty on the try-line, and France again punted for the line-out rather than shoot at goal.
Bastareaud thundered into midfield, Louis Picamoles drove to the right-hand post, and hooker Dimitri Szarzewski bundled in.
Referee Steve Walsh awarded the try, but replays suggested the Racing Metro hooker fumbled in the act of scoring. Machenaud landed the conversion, to cut Ireland’s lead to just two points.
Sexton’s mixed night took another turn when he was knocked out cold trying to fell Bastareaud. The Toulon battering ram put Sexton in the recovery position before Ireland’s medical team carried him from the field by stretcher.
Heavyweight replacements Alexandre Flanquart and Sebastien Vahaamahina beefed up France’s scrum, forcing a penalty as Ireland were rocketed backwards.
Jean-Marc Doussain had the chance to steal the lead from the tee, but could only shoot wide, then
Damien Chouly thought he had stolen the game when he nipped into the right corner, but Vincent Debaty’s pass was rightly ruled forward.
France stole Ireland’s scrum, only for the visitors to win a turnover at the ruck, and spark jubilant celebrations at the final whistle.