By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) – Johnny Sexton’s last-second drop goal earned Ireland a dramatic 15-13 away victory against France in their Six Nations opener as Les Bleus suffered an agonising defeat for coach Jacques Brunel’s first game in charge on Saturday.
Sexton’s drop goal almost three minutes into injury time stunned the Stade de France as the hosts thought they would prevail after a splendid late try by wing Teddy Thomas.
But Sexton, who scored all his team’s points as he also slotted four penalties, had other ideas.
France had stayed in contention thanks to Maxime Machenaud two penalties before Thomas’s dazzling run and Anthony Belleau’s conversion had put them ahead for the first time.
Les Bleus, who have not won in their last seven games, lost teenage sensation Matthieu Jalibert after the flyhalf suffered a knee injury in the first half.
Brunel, who took over from Guy Noves after a poor November series, banked on Jalibert to instil some life into the French team, but the 19-year-old limped off the field after half an hour.
France were penalised for offside early on and Sexton coolly slotted the penalty home as Ireland got off to a lively start.
The hosts were often pinned back to their own half with Connor Murray’s kicks proving tough to handle, but they enjoyed a good spell after 15 minutes as Jalibert showed a lot of pace.
But Ireland defended ferociously and never allowed Les Bleus into their 22 metres.
Another Sexton routine penalty earned Ireland a 6-0 lead.
Jalibert left the pitch to be replaced by Belleau at the half hour after hurting his knee.
Machenaud reduced the arrears five minutes before the interval with a penalty France won at the breakdown, only for Sexton to restore the six-point lead after a Sebastien Vahaamahina foul on Murray in the scrum.
The second rower was sanctioned again for offside and Sexton converted the resulting penalty to fatten up Ireland’s advantage, only for Machenaud to reply with a penalty.
France were still in contention after Sexton missed his first penalty of the night and Thomas scored the only try of an otherwise locked game.
Belleau converted to put France ahead but Ireland pushed in the closing stages and Sexton fired a fine drop goal after a long spell of possession.
France travel to Scotland while Ireland host Italy next weekend.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Pritha Sarkar)