Ireland impress to beat France and sustain slender Six Nations title hopes

  •  PA Sport

Ireland rediscovered their 2018 mojo to thump France 26-14 and sustain their slender Guinness Six Nations title hopes.

Captain Rory Best, talisman fly-half Johnny Sexton, Jack Conan and Keith Earls all crossed as Joe Schmidt’s men hit back to form, with Yoann Huget and Camille Chat claiming late consolations for the disorganised French.

Ireland’s bonus-point win means victory against Grand Slam-chasing Wales in Cardiff on Saturday could yet sweep the title, though that would also require an England slip-up against Scotland at Twickenham.

Schmidt’s men finally showed the kind of form that elevated them above all comers in 2018, a year that comprised a Grand Slam and second victory over New Zealand.

Skipper Best marked his final Six Nations match in Dublin before his intended retirement at the end of the calendar year in style, with a try and another top performance.

Ireland’s 32-20 opening-weekend defeat to England leaves unbeaten Wales favourites for the Grand Slam at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, and the English ought to see off the Scots.

But this commanding Irish victory at least sets up an intriguing final-weekend clash, as Schmidt’s side look to lay down a marker for the autumn’s World Cup.

Ireland’s blistering start yielded a rapid try for Best, the skipper ploughing over after a penalty lineout and Sexton converting for a 7-0 lead.

Garry Ringrose’s astute kick in behind forced France to concede a five-metre lineout, then Arthur Iturria’s cheap penalty gifted the hosts another kick to the corner.

From the second set-piece, Best drove over in the corner, to settle any early nerves.

Ireland were handed a reprieve when wing Damian Penaud knocked on despite beating Jordan Larmour to a high bomb, with Thomas Ramos’ resulting finish chalked off.

But after that, the half proved one-way traffic, Ireland spending the middle third creating then bungling any number of scoring chances.

Finally, Sexton ghosted home on a simple midfield wraparound as the monumental home pressure told, the fly-half converting again.

The outstanding Ringrose almost bagged a near-immediate third, only to knock on in the act of grounding after a stunning high-ball field.

Undeterred though, again the relentless Irish pressed, punishing France’s slack alignment in the field’s central third with Conan stealing over on the right.

Hulking France prop Demba Bamba lost the ball horribly cheaply in contact, and Les Bleus paid the full price as replacement Conan nipped home.

France started the second half at pace but were in truth easily subdued again by the hosts.

And when Earls raced in for the bonus-point score, any remaining French resolve all-but evaporated.

Munster star Earls profited from yet another special move from head coach Schmidt, stepping into the lineout before fielding an inside ball from CJ Stander on the back peel.

That ruse was enough to flummox the French, with Earls storming clear and securing the five-point win.

Sexton posted the conversion for a 26-0 lead, in what proved his final act.

Schmidt replaced Sexton, Conor Murray and skipper Best, emptying his bench with next weekend’s final-round clash in Cardiff well in mind.

That the job was already considered complete against Les Bleus inside the hour speaks volumes about the lowly state of France’s Test rugby.

Dorian Aldegheri was sin-binned for scrum infringements as Ireland sustained the onslaught in the final quarter.

But with 14 men France finally troubled the scorers; Huget romping in before Chat capped a driving maul.

France had hoped their 27-10 win over Scotland might prove the start of something new, instead, Jacques Brunel’s men simply suffered another false dawn.

Ireland meanwhile can head to Cardiff with confidence at least renewed in this World Cup year.

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