Ireland needed a sensational Johnny Sexton drop-goal to salvage Six Nations victory against a France side at the centre of new controversy over use of the replacement laws
France 13-15 Ireland
On a day when World Rugby was again seen to be addressing the running sore that is squint scrum feeds, a potentially more dubious practice appeared to rear its head.
Two young French half-backs, Matthieu Jalibert and replacement Antoine Dupont, both left the field with knee injuries that were classified as Head Injury Assessments. In the first instance, it bought extra time for France as they weighed up whether Jalibert would recover and be able to return (he didn’t); in the second instance, with France protecting a one-point lead, it enabled them to bring experienced scrum-half Maxime Machenaud back on for the closing minutes instead of being forced into a difficult reshuffle.
Referee Nigel Owens was at pains to clarify that Dupont was being removed because the independent match doctor was instructing that an HIA was needed. The scepticism of players like Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton was plain to see.
It’s less than eight months since Six Nations chiefs reprimanded France for infringing the replacement laws. In last year’s championship, their team doctor said that prop Uini Atonio needed to go off for an HIA, allowing renowned scrummager Rabah Slimani to reappear for a series of crucial scrums on the Welsh line.
An official investigation found “no clear evidence” of sharp practice by France, rather just a break from HIA protocol, but the suspicion they are playing fast and loose with the laws will inevitably strengthen following the latest incidents at Stade de France.
Six Nations Rugby Ltd was swift to act, announcing that their HIA Review Processor, Alligin (UK) Ltd, is looking at incidents from Saturday’s match. Depending on the findings, a further review by an HIA Review Panel could follow.
The problem is that it’s nigh-on impossible to prove that Jalibert and Dupont could not have sustained a knock to the head in the tackle incidents that led to their injuries.
Yet people in the game will rightly feel disgusted if they believe that the HIA law – commendably introduced to prioritise player welfare – is being abused.
Paul O’Connell, part of the BBC’s panel of pundits in Paris, said: “In the directives given to the refs, there was a lot of talk about the values of the game, about players protesting (to) referees; we have to protect the values of the game. It’s just disappointing to see two players going off with knee injuries under an HIA.”
After the match, France coach Jacques Brunel pointed out that they were not responsible for the decision to impose HIAs, saying: “There were collisions. The HIA protocol was decided by an independent doctor. It wasn’t our decision.”
The issue detracted from what Jeremy Guscott called a “miracle kick” by Sexton that denied France a shock victory. With the clock deep into the red, the Irish stand-off let fly with a drop-goal attempt from 44 metres and the ball just did enough to clear the crossbar.
Sexton likened it to a similar effort he slotted against Treviso but this kick was of a completely different dimension. In giving Ireland an eighth successive victory, it keeps alive their Grand Slam hopes – and with three successive home matches to come. It’s only the fourth time Ireland have won in Paris in the past 66 years.
For Sexton too it spelt redemption of sorts because his poor penalty miss on 61 minutes prevented Ireland from going two scores clear; that attempt was from a similar spot to his 2013 miss against New Zealand that ended with the All Blacks winning with the final play.
“I was just happy to get another chance to get victory for the boys,” said Sexton after his drop-goal heroics. “All our (tournament) goals would have crumbled today if we had lost.”
It was easily the most dramatic of Sexton’s four Test drop-goals, the others coming against Wales in 2010 (27-12), Australia at RWC 2011 (15-6) and France in last year’s meeting (19-9), and it completed a sensational finish to what was largely a grimly mediocre match.
It took about 50 minutes to attain anything like the energy levels we saw in the Wales-Scotland match in Cardiff and we were briefly treated to a rendition of La Marseillaise.
Even so, we still seemed destined for a try-less encounter until, with eight minutes remaining, France wing Teddy Thomas capitalised on a disjointed kick chase to skirt round Rob Kearney and veer inside for a super 60m individual score.
Anthony Belleau, a replacement for the unfortunate Jalibert, converted for a 13-12 lead but then missed a relatively straightforward kick that would have put France four points up with two minutes remaining.
For France, the day was meant to be about Jalibert, the first teenager to start a championship match at fly-half since Ireland’s Billy McCombe in 1968 and, at 19 years 89 days, the youngest fly-half that France have ever fielded in a Five/Six Nations match.
His nervy start included dropping a high ball, a wayward chip kick that went to Keith Earls and a missed tackle on Jacob Stockdale. He had started to settle down, however, when he hurt his knee tackling Bundee Aki and retired from the fray on 29 minutes.
With so many new faces and little preparation time, France could arguably claim a moral victory against the tournament favourites. They probably benefited more than the visitors from the rain that reduced proceedings, at times, to an error-laden bore; Sébastien Vahaamahina conceded four penalties by himself, all verging on the ridiculous.
But Ireland, whose kicking game caused no end of problems to les Bleus, rarely threatened the try-line despite 68% territory and possession. As Kearney admitted, they got out of jail with Sexton’s late act. “It’s massive for him, incredible,” said the full-back. “It’s the sign of a real champion to step up and go again (after his penalty miss) and that’s what he is.”
Ireland flanker Josh van der Flier, who was making his first Six Nations start for nearly two years, has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee ligament injury.
To watch highlights of the match, click here.
France G Palis; T Thomas, R Lamerat, H Chavancy, V Vakatawa; M Jalibert (A Belleau 29), M Machenaud (A Dupont, 66; Machenaud 75); J Poirot (D Priso 54), G Guirado (capt, A Pelissié 73), R Slimani (C Gomes Sa 54), A Iturria (P Gabrillagues 60), S Vahaamahina, W Lauret (M Tauleigne 66), Y Camara, K Gourdon.
Ireland R Kearney; K Earls, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale (F McFadden 74); J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 60), R Best (capt, S Cronin 67), T Furlong (Jo Ryan 69), I Henderson, Ja Ryan (D Toner 67), P O’Mahony, J van der Flier (D Leavy 36), CJ Stander.
Referee N Owens (Wales).
France – Try: Thomas. Con: Belleau. Pens: Machenaud 2.