Johnny Sexton shrugged off France’s latest bully-boy tactics to pilot Ireland’s stubborn 19-9 Six Nations victory in Dublin.
Sexton copped a heavy, late hit from former Racing 92 team-mate Eddy Ben Arous, but shook off any damage to end the day with an 11-point haul in Ireland’s fine triumph.
Conor Murray sneaked home for the game’s sole try to keep Ireland’s Six Nations title hopes alive, with Paddy Jackson also posting a late penalty.
Sexton has been knocked unconscious, suffered a nasty black eye and been put on his backside from countless late hits in a string of gritty clashes with France in the past four years. Ben Arous had even vowed to “go after” Sexton “200 per cent” at the World Cup in 2015, only for Ireland to prevail 24-9.
British and Irish Lions star Sexton suffered two questionable late tackles in this latest skirmish with Les Bleus, but emerged unscathed and victorious in his first match in a month after calf trouble.
The 31-year-old was replaced by Jackson in the final quarter, but for once against the French his withdrawal was not enforced.
Sexton’s immediate return to form after a niggling calf injury will leave Lions boss Warren Gatland hoping the stand-off can reignite his top form ahead of the summer’s tour to New Zealand.
Ireland’s sole concern from another bruising encounter remained a potential groin injury to full-back Rob Kearney.
Ireland rode their luck to sneak a 7-6 lead into the break, with only a marginal knock-on costing France a fine score. Camille Lopez’s smart kick-pass caught Ireland cold, with Yoann Huget stepping in off his wing to feed Gael Fickou, who could not quite complete the pass to his centre partner Remi Lamerat without the critical error.
The hosts then botched two fine attacking platforms before forcing the breakthrough that proved enough for the slender half-time advantage.
Robbie Henshaw’s brave, tight line from a five-metre scrum set the platform, and Murray sniped home in style.
Ireland wasted another gilt-edged opportunity though, winning four penalties in France’s 22 only for the visitors to then steal possession all too easily at a maul.
Ireland burst out of the blocks after the break, pouncing on Scott Spedding’s high-ball fumble. Though Jack McGrath was censured for running into his own man trying to drive round a ruck, the hosts quickly had a penalty when French scrum-half Baptiste Serin was pinged for blocking Murray at the scrum.
Sexton slotted the penalty with ease to push Ireland into a four-point lead.
In driving rain Ireland then turned the screw, with Sexton dropping a fine goal.
Replacement lock Julien Le Devedec then put in the first questionable hit on Sexton. Spedding immediately grabbed at thin air again, fumbling Sexton’s latest Garryowen.
Ireland demolished France at the scrum, and Sexton slotted his second penalty, to push Schmidt’s men into a 16-6 lead.
Ben Arous then flattened Sexton with a late hit, but the Ireland playmaker had already launched a fluent attack by sending Simon Zebo down the left flank.
Ireland ploughed through 18 phases, most with Sexton receiving treatment, before Spedding raced clear only for Zebo to recover his ambitious chip.
Lopez slotted his third penalty of the day with six minutes to play, only for Jackson to hit back from the tee and restore Ireland’s 10-point cushion.