Sexton’s boot again helps Irish down France 19-9 in Dublin

DUBLIN (AP) Aided by roaring Dublin fans and drizzling Irish rain, another perfect goalkicking effort by Jonathan Sexton led Ireland over France 19-9 in an often sloppy Six Nations rugby match on Saturday.

Sexton hit two penalties, converted the only try, and struck a 40-meter dropped goal before leaving in the 68th minute with victory in sight in his first match for Ireland since a calf injury in November.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said the return of Sexton’s field leadership was important, but credited the foul conditions and partisan home support with playing a potentially critical role against a physically powerful opponent.

”One of our best defenders today was probably the drizzle. It made for handling the ball very difficult. It made for a 17th man along with the crowd behind us,” said Schmidt, who has an undefeated record at home in Six Nations play since taking the helm in 2013.

Ireland rose to the top of the Six Nations table, still in contention with undefeated England, which faces winless Italy on Sunday.

The Irish, who won the Six Nations in 2014 and 2015, go to Wales before a potential championship decider against England in Dublin on St. Patrick’s weekend.

France fell out of the title hunt after a second loss. The French haven’t finished better than fourth in Six Nations play since 2011, the last time they managed to beat Ireland in Dublin.

The French mounted a ferocious first-quarter attack to lead 6-0 on two Camille Lopez penalty kicks. But they had an early try disallowed because of a Gael Fickou knock-on, and their attack unraveled as weather conditions steadily worsened in front of 54,000 roaring fans.

”We started really well but lost it in the second half,” France captain Guilhem Guirado said. ”We gave away too many penalties and weren’t really able to get out of our half in a fluent fashion.”

Ireland seized momentum with a 29th-minute try from a ruck by scrumhalf Conor Murray, who put Ireland repeatedly in strong field position with pinpoint kicks. Sexton’s conversion put Ireland up 7-6.

The Irish failed to convert sustained pressure into more first-half points, twice turning the ball over within five meters of France’s try line.

”The weather meant it was always going to be difficult. To miss a couple of opportunities was frustrating, but the important thing is we’re still in the hunt for the championship. A win and nothing else would do this week,” Murray said.

Lopez converted a 73rd-minute penalty to pull France within 16-9, but substitute Irish flyhalf Paddy Jackson hit his own three minutes later to deny France a losing bonus point.

Sexton’s performance mirrored his last Dublin face-off with the French in 2015, when he went 5-for-5 in penalties in an 18-11 win. His dropped goal for 13-6 was only his third for Ireland and first since 2011.

France too often self-destructed in attack, committing 13 penalties to Ireland’s eight. Nor did it compete consistently in set-piece play, winning just two mauls to Ireland’s 12.

”We played at the same level as the Irish physically, but their pressure forced us into errors,” France coach Guy Noves said. ”Defensively, we didn’t do well enough. We must not drop our shoulders, but we were beaten by a superior team.”