Ireland v France: Six Nations bonus point win for improved Irish over French in Dublin
IRELAND 26 FRANCE 14
Ireland produced a confident and direct display as they picked up five match points in a comfortable win over France in Dublin.
While the defending champions still remain in third place in the standings, the victory ensured they do retain a slim chance of retaining the title.
More importantly however, Ireland produced a performance having produced some indifferent performances during this Six Nations campaign.
It sets up a great showdown in Wales on Saturday with Ireland looking to deny the Welsh a Grand Slam.
Ireland had suffered a late injury blow before their Guinness Six Nations clash with France, with full-back Rob Kearney withdrawn due to an unspecified problem.
The 32-year-old British and Irish Lion was replaced by Jordan Larmour in Ireland's starting XV, with Munster's Andrew Conway stepping onto the bench.
Ireland had recalled all their big guns to host Les Bleus, with skipper Rory Best winning his 116th cap.
Kearney's injury issue was confirmed as a calf complaint, with Larmour primed for just his third Test start.
Leinster's 21-year-old flyer Larmour offers plenty of pace in attack but his biggest challenge would be to offer the same defensive stability as Kearney.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt told ITV: "Rob’s [Kearney] calf tightened up yesterday and we just felt it wasn’t a risk we had to take.
On Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton's form: "There are some other people who help run the team but they are the hub, and most things run through them with the positions they play. They have both had interrupted game time so it has been difficult for them."
"With the gap weeks in the Six Nations, some of them haven’t payed together for four weeks so we have tried to create some areas in training to help give us some patterns."
For head coach Schmidt and captain Best, this was set to be their last Six Nations match in Dublin as well as their last competitive games at the Aviva Stadium.
Best had announced on Tuesday that he believed the World Cup later this year would be mark the end of his playing career.
On his final Six Nations home game in charge, Schmidt said "The last six years have gone really quick but it has been a heck of a ride."
France kicked off, testing Larmour early, but the fullback popped a great ball into the corner and from there the opening score was to come within two minutes.
A penalty to touch - after Sexton's crossfield kick to Earls was brought back for a penalty - and from the driving maul it was captain Best who broke from the side and touched down with his left hand in the corner.
Sexton superbly delivered the extras from the touchline.
The French tested Larmour again with a crossfield kick from Huget and the fullback was beaten, but fortunately Penaud knocked on and although Ramos went clear, the TMO review showed the knock-on from the winger.
After 11 minutes Ireland came at the French in droves. There were probably two opportunities for ball to be delivered to Jacob Stockdale on the wing and certain tries, but Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour both opted to go themselves, the latter being turned over.
But the TMO was brought in when, at the back of a French ruck, prop Cian Healy came in to get a hand to the ball on the tryline. However, it was deemed the ball had gone forward initailly.
The Irish dominance continued, Sexton popped another penalty into touch, the long throw to the back was secured and Ireland put the rolling maul on once again. Lauret came in from the side and the resulting penalty was again put to touch. This time the lineout was overthrown and a surprised Sexton was unable to gather the ball - if he had a try was almost certain.
The pressure Ireland had had 93 per cent territory at this stage - eventually told, another lineout and driving maul, but this time when the ball was moved a lovely move between Ringrose and Sexton saw the latter race over for the try close to the posts and his conversion doubled the Irish lead.
It looked as though Ireland had scored a third try, Ringrose sliding in under the posts, but on review it was deemed he lost control of the ball and it had gone forward - there may have been the hint of a French hand actually propelling the ball forwards.
France simply had no answer to Ireland across the park and Schmidt's men were eventually rewarded with a third try, replacement backrow Jack Conan going over wide on the right. Sexton missed from the right touchline with the conversion.
HALF-TIME IRELAND 19-0 FRANCE
Les Bleus were a little more livelier at the start of the second half, but never really threatened through backs or forwards and then a great turnover by O'Mahony on the Ireland '22' gave them the relief the hosts needed as the looked to secure that early bonus point securing fourth try to keep their slim chances of a championship defence alive going to Wales next weekend.
From the lineout, Ireland moved ball and Ringrose did well before giving to Earls whose flat long kick was chased by Stockdale, Larmour and himself, French scumhalf Dupont put under pressure in his own ingoal area, Ireland forcing the scrum.
Iain Henderson took the initial drive on, CJ Stander the next, the ball was moved right but a poor pass saw O'Mahony drop ball and the French had a cheap exit.
On 56 minutes a little bit of Schmidt magic, Earls had been loitering around the Irish line out, Stander took the throw and Earls took an inside line which ripped right through the French cover for the bonus point fourth try - and his 30th Irish career try. Sexton's extras made it 26-0.
Schmidt immediately went to his bench providing some decent time opportunity for the replacements in key positions.
Ireland pressure on France close to their own goal line was starting to tell, and finally there was a yellow card for French replacement prop Dorian Aldegheri on 68 minutes.
But a foiled scrum gave France an easy exit and then Larmour looked to have found a way in, trying to skip through the cover, but he was then penalised for holding after the tackle.
France grabbed two late consolation tries, which will give the Irish a little concern, to take the bad look of the scoreboard in a game they were well beaten in.
Ireland: Larmour, Earls, Ringrose, Aki, Stockdale; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best (c), Furlong, Henderson, Ryan, O'Mahony, van der Flier, Stander.
Replacements: Scannell (Best 58) Kilcoyne (Healy 50), Ryan, Dillane (Henderson 58) , Conan (van der Flier 24), Cooney (Murray 58), Carty (Sexton 58), Conway (Earls 75).
France: Ramos, Penaud, Bastareaud, Fickou, Huget; Ntamack, Dupont; Poirot, Guirado (c), Bamba, Vahaamahina, Lambey, Lauret, Iturria, Picamoles.
Replacements: Chat (Guirado 71), Falgoux (Lambey 16), Aldegheri (Bamba 12 blood, 60), Willemse (Vahaamahina 60) Alldritt (Lauret 10), Serin (Dupont 71), Belleau (Ntamack 75), Medard (Ramos 60).