IRELAND 18 FRANCE 11
All roads will again lead to Dublin on Sunday, March 1, when Ireland will meet England in a potential Six Nations Championship decider.
Ireland survived a late rally from France in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening to deservedly win 18-11, while England defeated Italy at Twickenham to leave the joint favourites the remaining two unbeaten sides in this year’s championship.
Outhalf Joanthan Sexton produced a man of the match display also scoring all 15 points. but France scored the only try of the match to leave it a nervy finish for the greens in the closing minutes.
Ireland had probably shaded the first quarter, showing some inventiveness and putting pace on the ball.
Jonathan Sexton marked his return from a three month lay-off with a penalty shot on 12 minutes, which he slotted home. But almost immediately the French were on level terms after Rob Kearney was pinged for holding and the visiting outhalf, Camille Lopez slotted over the resulting penalty.
The Irish pack stormed forward again and when Guihem Gurado went off his feet at a ruck, the resulting penalty was confidently stroked over by Sexton on 18 minutes.
Ireland continued to dominate and were unfortunate not to perhaps get more points on the board, while France showed they were always a threat with a break from winger Teddy Thomas and Mathieu Bastareaud which came to nothing.
Ireland launched another attack but Simon Zebo held on to the ball far too long, however at the next phase the French infringed and Sexton made it 9-3 with his third penalty on the game on 33 minutes.
Two minutes later, a penalty giveaway by Rory Best on the ground, presented Lopez with a relatively simple chance and he duly obliged to make it 9-6.
But a minute from the interval, French orio Eddy Ben Arous went off his feet in front of the posts and although there was a good advantage played by referee Wayne Barnes, Ireland could not make more of it and Sexton made it 12-6 with another penalty.
Sexton and Bastareaud both went off with blood injuries after clashing heads in a tackle as the Irish made a storming start to the second half - only to spurn two decent scoring chances.
The defending champions continued to dominate and after France strayed offside, temporary replacement Madigan banged over the resultant penalty to stretch the advantage to nine points.
The French rallied, aided by a fresh front row, and stormed towards the Irish ‘22’, but a great steal by Peter O’Mahony saw Ireland clear, However, Pascal Pape was spotted kneeing Jamie Heaslip in the back and upon video referral the French lock was yellow carded.
Sexton’s return saw him pop a great ball into touch from a penalty and then from the lineout he tried to put Jared Payne in, but the pass was poor and bounced off his nose.
Ireland failed to make the numerical advantage count and then had to really themselves when hooker Best, making his 80th appearance, was sin-binned on the hour mark. Lopez missed the penalty opportunity.
The Irish survived three reset scrums before forcing a penalty, and an offside at the lineout presented Sexton with an opportunity - he made if five from five and an 18-6 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
The French threat was still there and having sprayed ball right where winger Yoann Huget was forced to come back inside, the ball was moved left and the overlap was there, replacement lock Romain Taofifenuas going over for a simple try. Loez missed the conversion, leaving Ireland with a seven-point advantage and as many minutes to play.
France came through the middle with Bastareaud, but from a lineout and driving maul Ireland got themselves out of danger. But the attacking threat was still there from the French when they recovered the ball and the Irish defence had to be at their sharpest.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, P O’Connell (capt), S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: S Cronin (Best 72), C Healy (Moore 62), M Moore (Ross 62), I Henderson (Toner 74), J Murphy (Heaslip 59), I Boss, I Madigan, F Jones.
France: S Spedding; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, W Fofana, T Thomas; C Lopez, R Kockott; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani, P Pape, Y Maestri, T Dusautoir (capt), B Le Roux, D Chouly.
Replacements: B Kayser (Guirado 52), U Atonio (Arous 52), V Debaty (Slimani 52), R Taofifenua (Pape 64), L Goujon (Chouly 73), M Parra (Kockott 65), R Tales (Spedding 52), R Lamerat.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).