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Monday 23 July 2018

Sexton saves best for last in epic finish

Six Nations to launch probe into French exploitation of Head Injury Assessment

Jonathan Sexton
watches his injurytime
drop goal sail
over the bar during
the Six Nations match
against France at the
Stade de France.
Pics: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton watches his injurytime drop goal sail over the bar during the Six Nations match against France at the Stade de France. Pics: Sportsfile

It was the kick that saved a season. For now, anyway. It looked, for all money, like France had done to Ir eland what Scotland had last season.

It would take the miracle move of 41 back-breaking phases of intense concentration, discipline and physicality for Ireland to put Johnny Sexton on the cusp.

From there, on the edge of his range, the out-half torpedoed a never-ending drop goal that delivered a theatrical testimony to his greatness, for Sexton is an all-time great.

It was the one moment that will stay with Ireland's ace, and all those who witnessed it, for as long as memories last.

Otherwise, the attention would have turned back to the penalty Sexton pulled wildly left and the comparisons would have been made to the kick that didn't kill off New Zealand at The Aviva in November of 2013.

Damning

Instead, it will shine on Anthony Belleau's equally damning miss, one to rival that of Jean Marc Doussain's at Stade de France in the 2014 Six Nations.

It is the way of the game to replicate match situations in pitch sessions.

However, there is nothing like the real thing and Sexton's mind travelled all the way back in time to Stadio Monigo on September 15, 2012.

It was then Treviso's Fabio Semenzato's converted try dared to break Leinster 18-16 with enough on the clock for one last drive in the PRO12 League encounter.

On that occasion, it was John Cooney, now of Ulster, who put Sexton on the spot to land the final blow.

"To be honest, I went back to many years ago when we played Treviso away and I was in that same position.

"It was an almost identical situation and I flashed back to that and had a pop."

The endgame was undermined by the uncharacteristic handling of referee Nigel Owens.

The Welshman is known for his spirit-of-the-game style of officiating in which the laws of the game are applied loosely.

Mostly, it makes for a better contest in which the benefit of the doubt is liberally applied.

Bu, the decision not to penalise Kevin Gourdon for taking out Rob Kearney, even with video assistance, was as damming as any bad call he has made in his decorated career.

The French disregard for the laws were apparent in the removal of Antoine Dupont for a Head Injury Assessment.

It was obvious to anyone with the gift of sight that his knee was the problem, not his head.

The ploy allowed starting scrum-half Maxime Machenaud to return to the game when the knee injury would not have.

This immediately resurrected the fallout from last March over the tactic to contrive a HIA against Wales when falsely claiming Uini Atonio had a head injury.

The truth of the matter is that the French scrum was on the brink of caving for a penalty try that would have sealed their fate.

The far superior scrummager Rabah Slimani, previously replaced, return to the game in the dying embers to steady a creaking scrum and see out the game.

In reaction, Six Nations Rugby Limited (SNRL) confirmed yesterday they were 'reviewing a number of incidents.'

France insisted on registering lower limb injuries to out-half Matthieu Jalibert and replacement scrum-half Dupont as cases for HIA.

Had Ireland succumbed to another heart-breaker in Paris, the turn of attention to these incidents would have been digested as sour grapes.

There is something truly rotten in French rugby that they can carry out this obvious pre-planned ploy less than one year after being involved in the same type of incident.

Ultimately, they will be remembered as two incidents that further magnified Ireland's character and cool.

There, in the middle of it all, was the master playmaker, calmly surveying the options open to him.

It came to the point when he knew he had to take a shot to nothing or have nothing to risk.

"I thought the lads' legs were out and I don't think we could have gone another couple of phases," he said.

"It says a lot about the management who drill us every day that's it never over, and we've got some good characters in the team.

"We just wanted to get off to a good start."

For some reason, the French like to save their best for Ireland in Paris.

The similarities between Saturday and others days before it were hauntingly depressing.

"It looked like it was going to be déjà vu," said Sexton, recalling the ghost of Maxime Medard from 2016.

"The way the score was 9-3 at half-time, just like it was two years ago, and they get a try out of nothing and we are behind.

"But this year, we got a chance and we took it."

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