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Never mind the quality, admire the immense bravery

By Tony Ward

From hero to villain to super hero all in 80-plus amazing minutes. Johnny Sexton has achieved many great things in an outstanding rugby career but his drop goal at the death in Paris on Saturday was one of the most courageous individual acts I have ever witnessed from any Irish sportsman.

Having kicked us into a 12-6 lead with four fairly standard penalties, he then hooked a vital kick just wide on the hour.

It was one he should have nailed, and it was from a similar position to the one missed against New Zealand in 2013 when that historic breakthrough against the All Blacks beckoned.

Goal kickers are human. Even the greats err on occasion.

And when Teddy Thomas' piece of magic resulted in the only try of the match converted by Anthony Belleau, it looked like Sexton's miss had paved the way for another disaster on Gallic soil.

The partisan crowd smelt blood and it appeared as if they were home and hosed.

What followed in those final dramatic minutes was moral courage of the highest order.

Collective courage in how the entire team protected possession and recycled ball though 41 phases, albeit making little progress against a French defensive wall that was as solid in extra-time as it had been for the entire 80 that went before.

Ireland showed superb discipline allied with dogged determination to eke out one more point-scoring opportunity.

It was a last throw of the dice which seemed to almost everybody in the stadium a lost cause as it evolved.

But in its midst came a moment, a magic moment that epitomised the expression 'fire in the belly but ice in the mind'.

Ireland were going nowhere, despite phase after phase and pass upon pass, when Sexton took it upon himself to deliver a slide-rule cross-kick to Keith Earls wide on the right.

The Munster wing - again outstanding - hoovered up the kick and drove ever closer to point-scoring range. What followed was a Packie Bonner freeze-frame moment as Sexton 'stepped back into the pocket'.

Given the context (last kick of the game), the degree of difficulty (distance and conditions, not to mention the opposition) it was the consummate match-winning kick from a master craftsman in the art.

No matter what else he achieves this kick will define this out-half as one of our greatest ever.

It could have finished so different, with Sexton set to be the villain of the piece following that missed penalty.

But it was that miss which made what followed so remarkable and so courageous.

Instead of hiding, maybe feeling sorry for himself, and continuing to just pop short passes in that tension-filled period of extra-time, the Leinster man put that massive reputation on the line in a moment when his country needed him most.

The kick was skilfully executed with as clean a strike as you will ever see, but it was the bravery to go for it that made it so very, very special.

True leaders stand up in adversity.

What made it even more noteworthy was the context of the performance.

The slippery wet conditions hardly helped but we were short on energy and intensity, and riddled with mistakes by Joe Schmidt's exacting standards. Aside from the final phase, we seldom moved out of third gear.

It was a tense, rusty, nervy performance. It wasn't that we played particularly badly, but we just didn't play.

That said, to win in Paris in the opening game is a massive statement of intent.

France have a young but hugely enthusiastic side finding their way and the crowd responded to their efforts in the most supportive way.

For the team in green it must have felt like 15 against the world such was the noise. They deal seemed sealed after Belleau's successful conversion for a 13-12 lead.

We got out of jail, and that's no bad thing. It was a watershed moment in a watershed game. We won playing well within ourselves and by the skin of our teeth.

There will be changes out of necessity to face Italy on Saturday as it will take some time to get the physical and emotional demands of Paris out of the system.

We won a game we thought we had lost and didn't play well. I'd like to think it was the fear of coming up short yet again in a city where Ireland have so rarely won.

We did not come close to performing like the third-best team in the world save for those incredible match-winning minutes but we know we have that capability.

With varied selection through the use of ever-growing resources I believe will pitch up to Twickenham for a Grand Slam decider on the final day of the championship.

While we could and probably should have lost on Saturday, we didn't deserve to lose.

We underperformed, but to win in Paris in the opening game makes for some springboard. With that will come confidence and the all-important ingredient called momentum.

We won despite ourselves - due in the main to the over-riding mental fortitude of one man.

Belfast Telegraph

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