Six Nations: Ireland pip England to title after victory away in France
By Rob Lancaster. Last Updated: 15/03/14 7:53pm
Ireland clinched the Six Nations title - and gave the retiring Brian O'Driscoll the perfect send-off from international rugby - with a thrilling 22-20 victory over France in Paris.
Jonathan Sexton scored two tries and kicked two conversions and a penalty to see the Irish to just their second victory in Paris in the last 42 years.
The visitors led 22-13 after an hour but were forced to cling on through to the final whistle, though they only escaped conceding in the dying moments when Damien Chouly had what would have been a match-winning try chalked off for a forward pass.
The reprieve meant Ireland took the crown on points difference from England, who had held up their end of the bargain by thrashing Italy 52-11 in Rome.
It also allowed O'Driscoll to bow out a champion at the end of his 142nd and final Test appearance. Few would deny the talismanic centre such a fairytale finish to a stellar career in the emerald green shirt.
For the first 20 minutes 'BOD' and his colleagues must have feared the worst as a French team, clearly stinging from the criticism that had come their way after scraping to victory over Scotland last time out, burst out of the traps.
Maxime Machenaud kicked them ahead inside two minutes and added a further penalty to make it 6-0 after he himself had caught Dave Kearney in possession following up his own grubber kick.
With Mathieu Bastareaud at his destructive best, including one barnstorming break right through the centre pairing of Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll, and the crowd firmly behind them, Les Bleus were running red hot.
Yet Ireland did not panic, weathering the early storm before catching their opponents cold with two tries in the space of five first-half minutes.
Conor Murray created both with solo breaks, the first of which led to Sexton diving over from close range, with Bastareaud this time the one grasping at thin air as Joe Schmidt's side patiently waited for a gap to emerge.
After the recalled Louis Picamoles had somehow managed to spill the ball forward having initially taken a high kick with ease, Ireland seized the chance to attack the French line again. Murray picked out a gap and Andrew Trimble supported the run of his team-mate, leading to an easy finish under the posts.
Sexton landed his second conversion attempt, meaning a six-point deficit had quickly been turned into an advantage of the same margin.
France's response to the double whammy was impressive and emphatic; fly-half Remi Tales kicked high to the right corner for winger Yoann Huget, who tapped the ball back for full-back Brice Dulin to gather and finish.
The conversion from Machenaud saw the lead switch hands again, though Ireland could have pinched it back had the unusually wayward right boot belonging to Sexton landed a penalty with the final kick of a pulsating first half.
The number 10 made amends soon after the re-start by touching down for a second time, the ball being recycled to him after only some desperate French resistance had denied O'Driscoll the chance to mark his finale with a try.
Sexton knocked over the extras, then followed it up with a penalty to open up a two-score gap for the first time in the match. It gave Ireland something to hold onto, and they duly managed to do so despite coming under intense pressure.
After replacement Jean-Marc Doussain missed a relatively easy penalty attempt, France set up a frantic finish when hooker Dimitri Szarzewski plunged over alongside the posts. The conversion meant the difference was down to two.
The home side went on to lay siege in an attempt to find a winning score, and it seemed Irish hearts would be broken when Chouly nipped in at the right corner. However, the television official rightly ruled the final pass to the no 8 had gone forward. Ireland survived - soon after they were celebrating.
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