Peerless Sexton guides Ireland to France rugby win

Dublin (AFP) - Johnny Sexton made a sparkling return to international duty as he guided Ireland to a 19-9 victory over France at Dublin's Lansdowne Road on Saturday that kept their Six Nations title hopes alive.

The 31-year-old fly-half, who had not played for five weeks because of a calf injury suffered on club duty, kicked 11 points in what was his first Test appearance since he faced the All Blacks in Dublin in November.

Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray scored the only try of the match, with Sexton converting that 30th minute effort in a tally that also included two penalties and a drop-goal.

The sight of Sexton back in command, a big boost too for the British and Irish Lions ahead of this year's tour of New Zealand, was welcomed by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

"Johnny really controlled the game well and he didn't shirk the physical stuff either," Schmidt told RTE.

"It was good to see Conor Murray on song as well," the New Zealander added.

Victory made it two wins from three for Ireland this tournament but for France it was yet another setback on foreign soil, with their woeful Six Nations away record now standing at just three wins -- two against Italy and one over Scotland -- in 15 games.

"We're still in the hunt for this Championship," Murray told ITV. "Seventy minutes for Sexton will put him in good stead for games against the Welsh and English."

France looked to be in control until the half-hour mark and led 6-0 through two Camille Lopez penalties but Ireland fought back to preserve their three-year unbeaten home record in the Six Nations.

Both sides started brightly with Sexton immediately asserting himself, although one wayward kick out on the full gave the French a line-out at halfway.

The visitors capitalised this rare error, culminating in a superb solo break by scrum-half Baptiste Serin which saw him brought down inside the Irish 22.

However, an Irish infringement allowed Lopez a simple pop at goal and he put France 3-0 ahead in the 12th minute.

France had the upper hand, especially in the scrum, and looked to have scored a try through Remi Lamerat only for Gael Fickou to be judged to have knocked on earlier in the move.

By way of consolation, Lopez kicked another penalty to make it 6-0 with the first quarter gone.

Finally, after almost half an hour, Ireland sprang into action, orchestrated by Sexton, who broke into space and chipped over the French defence only for Noa Nakaitaci to touch down ahead of the chasing Keith Earls

However, a minute later Ireland had a try.

Ireland captain Rory Best opted for a scrum when awarded a penalty and from the ensuing set-piece, Murray darted over for his 10th Test try, Sexton converting to edge the Irish 7-6 ahead.

- France flail in rain -

Despite terrific Irish pressure that is the way it stayed till half-time but Sexton added a penalty shortly after the restart to make it 10-6.

Sexton extended the lead still further in the 50th minute with a sublime drop-goal, punching the air in celebration.

The stand-off gave Ireland further breathing space with another penalty in the 55th minute as the French failed to cope with the slippery conditions caused by steadily falling rain.

Ireland looked to have the game by the scruff of the neck entering the final 20 minutes, but time and again France's defence kept them in the match.

Lopez put them within a converted try of a draw as he opted to kick at goal rather than going for the corner -- despite some of his team-mates imploring him to do so -- leaving the French seven points adrift at 16-9 with six minutes to go.

However, Paddy Jackson, on for Sexton, finally put the result beyond doubt when he restored the 10-point lead by kicking a penalty with just a few minutes remaining.

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