When Jonathan Sexton’s long-distance dropped goal just crept over the crossbar in the last act of the game, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt celebrated like he was among the delirious fans behind the posts.
Sexton’s astonishing effort from 44 meters out on a greasy pitch in the rain settled a tense Six Nations encounter 15-13 in Ireland’s favor — moments after France unexpectedly went ahead 13-12 thanks to a superb solo try from right winger Teddy Thomas.
Sexton’s clinical pot kick came after the Irish strung 41 phases then stalled inside the French half.
“It’s pretty hard to explain how you feel when you think that the game has got away, you’ve let it slip and then suddenly you’ve grabbed it,” Schmidt said.
“It was incredible effort from everyone to work their way up the pitch. When he struck the drop goal I was just willing it to have enough distance to get over. When it did, the whole coaching staff stood up as one and cheered with the Irish supporters.”
Ireland had just been given a reprieve, because although replacement flyhalf Anthony Belleau nailed the conversion to Thomas’ try he then blew a penalty.
With what little time was left, the Irish used it with extraordinary composure to work into the French half.
Then came the moment, in the 83rd minute.
“Just had a pop,” Sexton said. “The lads’ legs were out. I don’t think we’d have gone a couple more phases. Just got there in the end.”
Sexton could not quite believe it, taking a second to check the dropped goal was given before he was mobbed by his teammates.
France’s players dropped to their knees in a mixture of exhaustion and frustration. So much effort for so little reward.
“It’s a very disappointing ending given how much energy we put into it,” France coach Jacques Brunel said. “What else can you feel apart from enormous frustration? It came in the 83rd minute. He took the right option and you have to congratulate him, it wasn’t easy.”
Although Brunel’s new-look side showed mettle, defeat would still have been harsh on Ireland.
“Our lack of discipline punished us,” France captain Guilhem Guirado said. “It’s even harder to lose when we had the match in hand.”
France’s evening went from elation to stunned disbelief in a frantic last 10 minutes that provided unexpected marvel to a scrappy contest in pouring rain.
With the clock running down, Thomas surged out of nowhere to beat four Irish tackles after a flying run down the right flank ended with him snaking over the line at full stretch.
France was just as surprised to see the try as Ireland, which seemed to have the French counterattack contained until Thomas accelerated around the edge and was through.
Until that point, it looked like Sexton’s steady boot would be enough to get the Irish only a third win at Stade France. He landed four penalties but also missed one at 12-6.
Belleau took France’s penalty at 13-12 because scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, who slotted over two, had limped off the pitch. It was a big task for Belleau, winning only his third test cap after Matthieu Jalibert also limped away early, and the kick from about 35 meters on the left lacked confidence.
Still, France will take heart from the spirit they showed under Brunel. He was appointed in December to stop a six-match winless run, and boldly gave debuts to 19-year-old Jalibert and fullback Geoffrey Palis.
It was all penalty kicks until Thomas’ try, which looked like being the highlight of the match.
Only to be trumped by Sexton’s phenomenal final shot. Jerome Pugmire, Saint-Denis, AP