Sexton magic secures thrilling win
Sexton magic secures thrilling winSHARE
France had claimed the lead (13-12) eight minutes from time when a magical, weaving run by wing Teddy Thomas, set up the game for a climatic finish.
France looked to have claimed the win when the clock went into the red.
However, four minutes of fierce attacking and brutal defending, including 40-off phases of clinical Irish play, got the visitors inside the French half.
And Sexton slotted the drop-goal with clinical precision for a crucial opening-round win and ruin Jacques Brunel's debut as France coach.
The exciting finale, however, was in stark contrast to what had come before.
For 72 minutes there was little in the way of thrilling or expansive rugby in a match dominated by the forwards and played almost entirely in the middle two-thirds.
But flying wing Thomas set the Stade de France alight.
Wide on the right, and with little space to work with, he accelerated down the line and swerved infield before making a beeline for the posts as flailing green-shirted Irishman failed to get a hand on him.
Substitute flyhalf Anthony Belleau kicked the conversion and just as they had done two years ago, France had turned around a six-point half-time deficit with a late try.
But unlike 2016, there was to be another twist in the tale.
Belleau missed a penalty with two minutes left, giving Ireland one more chance to push for a score.
They claimed the 22 drop out and initiated a long sequence of almost five minutes of possession that ended with Sexton's incredible kick.
The 32-year-old kicked all of Ireland's points.
It was an all-around bad day for the French as teenage flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert's surprise debut, already an unspectacular affair, ended after half an hour following a knee-to-knee collision with Bundee Aki.
The 19-year-old did little wrong, or right for that matter, during a turgid first 30 minutes of forward-dominated rugby arm-wrestle.
It had taken just three minutes for Ireland to get on the board through a Sexton penalty after France were penalised for offside.
Ireland's discipline was letting them down but France was unable to capitalise and consistently ran into an impenetrable green wall.
Sexton knocked over a second penalty as Ireland proved the more effective with their scraps of chances.
France got on the scoreboard through a Maxime Machenaud penalty four minutes before half-time as Ireland were penalised for holding on in the tackle, but Sebastien Vahaamahina shoulder charged Conor Murray just before the break and Sexton duly slotted over his third kick from the tee.
The half-time scoreline, 9-3, was the joint lowest between these two sides in a Six Nations match.
Yet two years ago, France scored a second-half try to snatch a 10-9 win after trailing 9-3 at the break.
Sexton and Machenaud exchanged penalties before the Irish veteran surprisingly pulled a kick wide of the uprights leaving the visitors 12-6 ahead going into the final quarter.
France's indiscipline was costing them and after a rare foray into the Irish 22, Vahaamahina infringed again and Ireland could clear their lines.
Out of nowhere, though, Thomas gave the home fans hope of celebrating a famous victory.
The try changed everything and suddenly, with tails up, France were all over the Irish.
Belleau could have as good as killed the game but his missed penalty was all the sniff the Irish needed, and Sexton made him, Brunel and France pay dearly.
Pens: Machenaud 2
Pens: Sexton 4
France: 15 Geoffrey Palis, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Henry Chavancy, 12 Remi Lamerat, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Kevin Gourdon, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Replacements: 16 Adrien Pelissie, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Marco Tauleigne, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Benjamin Fall.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Dan Leavy, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
Agence France-Presse & @rugby365com