Ireland remain unbeaten in this year’s Six Nations after a gritty victory over a disappointing France in Dublin.
Man-of-the-match Jonathan Sexton, who had been out for three months with concussion, kicked four first-half penalties as Ireland led 12-6 at the break.
With both sides engaged in a torrid battle at the breakdown there was little flair on display and fans had to wait until well into the second half for the first clear-cut try-scoring opportunity, which Ireland butchered.
French lock Romain Taofifenua scored the only try of the match after 70 minutes but two more penalties had already made Ireland safe.
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, the defending champions, have now won nine games in a row and host England, who are also unbeaten in this year’s tournament, in two weeks’ time.
And Schmidt will be buoyed that Sexton, flanker Sean O’Brien and prop Cian Healy, who were all returning after long injury lay-offs, came through a tough battle unscathed.
It was expected that giant French centre Mathieu Bastareaud would target Ireland fly-half Sexton, but it was Sexton who went looking for Bastareaud early on, bringing the Toulon man to a juddering halt and earning his side the put-in at the resulting scrum.
Tommy Bowe nearly latched on to diagonal kick from Sexton, but a penalty had already been awarded and the Racing Metro number 10 duly kicked the hosts into the lead.
France levelled the score through the boot of Clermont’s Camille Lopez, but two more Sexton penalties, after France twice infringed at the breakdown, gave Ireland a six-point lead.
Teddy Thomas, who had looked one of the liveliest of the French three-quarters, limped off shortly before half-time, before Lopez reduced Ireland’s lead to three points after Rory Best was penalised for being caught on the wrong side at a ruck.
But France’s indiscipline cost them again, allowing Sexton to pop over a simple penalty and make the score 12-6 to Ireland at the break.
It had been an attritional first half, more notable for the number of infringements and turnovers at the breakdown than any commitment to creativity or attacking verve.
Shortly after the restart, Ireland full-back Rob Kearney fielded a high kick in the French 22 and Sexton was clobbered by Bastareaud from the resulting attack. Having clashed heads, both players were led from the field, with Sexton replaced by Leinster’s Ian Madigan.
Madigan increased his side’s lead with his first attempt at goal and with France’s scrum also starting to creak, Ireland appeared heavy favourites with 30 minutes to go.
Both sides lost a man to the sin bin, while Sexton, who returned to the fray after 55 minutes, should have set up his side’s first try, but centre Jared Payne was unable to gather the fly-half’s fiery short pass.
Sexton slotted his fifth penalty before replacement lock Taofifenua touched down unopposed after the visitors, despite making handling error after handling error, eventually found a way through Ireland’s defence.
With replacement prop Vincent Debaty making his presence felt up front, France gradually improved as the second half wore on and at least attempted to put width on the ball in the final stages, but despite a late assault they were unable to deny Ireland victory.