Ireland 19 France 9: And so to Cardiff, where Ireland have experienced both the best and worst of times in recent years, but can look upon their next visit with renewed optimism now Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are back in business.
A trip to the Millennium Stadium, now renamed the Principality, is always a daunting prospect and a Friday night showdown with Wales on March 10 will only intensify the red-hot atmosphere this cauldron of an arena so often generates.
Yet Saturday evening’s resumption of the Murray-Sexton axis at Ireland’s playmaking hub was a key indicator that head coach Joe Schmidt has the leadership and maturity in this key area to execute his gameplan in even the most febrile of environments.
Sexton’s ability to return from a calf injury straight into a championship encounter with the French had been the major question mark over Schmidt’s selection at fly-half.
On top of the hamstring injury the 31-year-old suffered in November, the playmaker’s calf issues, which sidelined him on January 20, had caused him to miss the first two rounds of the RBS 6 Nations campaign and left Sexton considerably undercooked.
Add that point to the convincing displays in his absence by less experienced stand-in Paddy Jackson and it appeared to many that Schmidt had a genuinely difficult decision to make.
Yet how did that supposed dilemma looked overblown come Saturday night as Sexton returned to the fold and not only hit the ground running but also brought the best out of scrum-half, Murray.
The pair combined to deliver a dominant performance for Ireland when they needed it most. Already in must-win territory following their opening-day defeat to Scotland, Murray and Sexton took command, not just in supplying all the points to secure victory but to outclass their French rivals Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez and bring a calm and efficiency to the Irish in a fixture that has so often proven to be an incredibly tight and tense contest.
Was it a coincidence that Murray put in his best performance of the campaign so far? The Munster number nine was kicking with superb control and back to his sniping best from the back of the ruck, pouncing for the only try of the game in the 29th minute. It was the foundation stone that Ireland needed to rally from a shaky first quarter and though no further tries came from the home side’s dominance, Sexton’s boot proved the difference instead.
It had been part of that sluggish opening, the Leinster star admonishing himself when he sent a crossfield kick out on the full, yet he grew in stature as the contest progressed. A quick tap and go penalty before half-time would come to nought when a simple three points from the tee would have sufficed at just 7-6 in front but it was a signal that Sexton was fizzing with determination and that translated into telling scores just after the break.
A 45th-minute penalty sent Ireland 10-6 in front and then five minutes later a masterful drop kick from 40 metres gave his side the separation that would prove decisive. He added another penalty four minutes later and kept Ireland on the front foot until his eventual withdrawal on 68 minutes when Jackson came on added the final three-pointer to deny France a losing bonus point at 19-9.
Ireland may rue the try-scoring opportunities that went abegging as a physical French defence held the line but the return of the Murray and Sexton show was the real box-office smash as Schmidt saw his side stay alive in the championship title race.
He described Sexton’s impact as “really, really positive for us” but also acknowledged the ever-growing influence of his half-back partner, although guarding against describing Murray as being talismanic.
“Conor is really quiet. He does not impose his personality or doesn’t really say a lot in the group but he is incredibly respected within the group,” the head coach said.
“We want players actions to have such a volume that we don’t need to hear them speaking. And he turns up the volume for the big games without a doubt. He has got a skill set that enables us to play. He has a skill set that enables us to change the point of attack and to relieve pressure and he has got a courage to allow us to have an extra defender, sliding into the defensive line as required, and even when the ball is in the air, he is good in the air. It is a luxury having a scrum half who is 6 ft 2in. We wouldn’t rely on one particular talisman because you start to revolve too much around one person and that is too much pressure for the person.”
Pressure, though, is something that both Murray and Sexton can cope with and on Friday week in Wales there will be no better pairing to face the next, exacting test of that.
R Kearney (A Trimble, 51); K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (P Jackson, 69), C Murray (K Marmion, 78); J McGrath (C Healy, 59), R Best – captain (N Scannell, 68), T Furlong (J Ryan, 73); D Ryan (I Henderson, 59), D Toner; CJ Stander, S O’Brien (P O’Mahony, 68), J Heaslip.
S Spedding (D Camara, 74); Y Huget, R Lamerat (H Chavancy, 59), G Fickou, N Nakataici; C Lopez, B Serin (M Machenaud, 61); C Baille (E Ben Arous, 51), G Guirado – captain (C Tolofua, 61), R Slimani (U Atonio, 51); S Vahaamahina (J Le Devedec, 51), Y Maestri; B Le Roux (C Ollivon, 59), K Gourdon, L Picamoles.
Nigel Owens (Wales)
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved