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Sexton proves again he is the perfect '10' in Ireland's victory over France

Ireland 19 France 9

By Jonathan Bradley

Campbell or Ward, Elwood or Humphreys, O'Gara or Sexton - few teams do out-half controversy like the Irish but against France on Saturday Johnny Sexton seemed intent on reclaiming a firm grasp of his number 10 jersey worn so impressively by Ulster's Paddy Jackson in recent times.

The Leinsterman missed the first two games of the Six Nations Championship through injury, the latest in a succession of soft tissue injuries that have made for a frustrating run for the 31-year-old.

Re-affirming his worth against a French team who have revelled in trying to unsettle him in recent years, Sexton and his half-back partner, Conor Murray, were the stars of the show as Ireland kept alive hopes for a tantalising, last day title showdown with England with a 19-9 win.

While there is plenty to come before then - round four sends Ireland to Cardiff while England host a resurgent Scotland - Joe Schmidt can at least prepare for the March 10 trip to the Principality Stadium knowing that his first-choice out-half is ready for the battle.

"I thought he was really, really positive for us," said Schmidt after the victory.

"It's certainly not the first time that Johnny's done it (come back in and impressed).

"He tends to come in and prepares himself incredibly well.

"He's got such a competitive edge that he wants to be at his best, and he actually felt good, he felt fresh.

"For some of the other players, because you accumulate a few knocks and fatigue week to week, Johnny came in feeling pretty good (comparatively).

"He varied the game in the second-half because we had to get them chasing things, chasing us.

"I thought he did it superbly and there were a couple of great kicks in behind that allowed us to keep the pressure on even if we didn't have the ball."

While it was no surprise to see Sexton lead his side in metres made and points, it was perhaps eye-catching to see the St. Mary's man out-tackled only by back-row duo CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip.

Schmidt, however, always expects to see such work without the ball from his '10'.

"He never shirks his defensive responsibilities anyway, so you knew what he was going to give you," he added. "We aimed to give him 50 to 55 minutes but with the nature of the game, he had the wind knocked out of him and had a two and a half minute rest so we gave him a bit longer.

"Johnny makes a call and guys immediately respond to it. Paddy Jackson is growing all the time in that as well, when he speaks, he has the undivided attention of the room too.

"For Johnny, with the experience he has with the group, and the way they have confidence in him, it's because he has navigated them so effectively for however long."

While Ireland endured another slow start, but without sustaining the same damage that led to the opening round defeat to Scotland, they will be especially pleased to have held France without a try, even if their own attacking game didn't bring the rewards they would have liked.

Despite the advent of bonus points for this year's competition, the game played in pouring Dublin rain had something of a throwback factor, with Ireland never really in a position to chase four scores, ultimately securing the game's only try through Murray in the first-half. The result does, however, mean that the team's fate is in their own hands heading into the fourth game, with two wins and one bonus ensuring that, no matter what happens elsewhere, they would be no worse than tied at the top of the table when all is said and done.

Never one to look too far ahead, Schmidt was more concerned with the challenge of facing a Wales side who have been stung by losses in two of their three games to date.

"I probably haven't done the maths that far ahead, just because we try to stay really focused on the immediate challenge," he said.

"We've got Wales away to come, so we're not actually thinking about anything back here at the end of things yet because it will appeal a lot less to us if it's not for the Championship.

"That means having to go to Wales and get the result.

"They'll be disappointed and determined without doubt, and you don't go to Cardiff and get anything easy because they take a heck of a lot of pride in making sure they deliver there.

"They've got some super players who make it very difficult for visiting teams when they get there."

In the immediate aftermath, Ireland's only fresh injury concern seemed to be a hip injury picked up by full-back Rob Kearney.

Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong; D Toner, D Ryan; CJ Stander, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Replacements: A Trimble (for Kearney, 50), C Healy (for McGrath, 59), I Henderson (for Ryan, 59), N Scannell (for Best, 67), P O'Mahony (for O'Brien, 67), P Jackson (for Sexton, 68), J Ryan (for Furlong, 73), K Marmion (for Murray, 78)

France: S Spedding; Y Huget, R Lamerat, G Fickou, N Nakaitaci; C Lopez, B Serin; C Baille, G Guirado (capt), R Slimani; S Vahaamahina, Y Maestri; B Le Roux, K Gourdon, L Picamoles.

Replacements: E Ben Arous (for C Bailie, 50), U Antonio (for Slimani, 50) J Le Devedec (for Vahaamahina, 50), C Ollivon (for Le Roux, 59) H Chavancy (for Lamerat, 59), M Machenaud (for Serin, 61) C Tolofua (for Guirado, 61), D Camara (for Spedding, 73)

Referee: Nigel Owens

Man of the match: Conor Murray

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