Fly-half Jonathan Sexton produced a man of the match performance on his return after a 12 week absence to inspire defending Six Nations champions Ireland to an 18-11 victory over France at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
The 29-year-old – who was stood down for suffering four concussions last year – kicked 15 points against a France side that only really sparked into gear in the final 10 minutes, when they scored the only try of the game through Romain Taofifenua.
It took Ireland’s winning streak to nine tests – their second best ever run – but that will be sorely tested by England in a fortnight in Dublin.
The Irish fly-half, though, slotted the penalty over to give the hosts a 3-0 lead in the 14th minute.
However, the French drew level three minutes later as Lopez converted a penalty after Rob Kearney failed to release the ball when he was tackled.
The penalty ping-pong continued as Sexton restored the three point advantage approaching the 20 minute mark.
Sexton looked like he had never been away as he was directing the play and bemusing the French with his positional kicking. But while the Irish were dominating possession and territory, they were failing to convert that into points and losing their position inside the French 22 by conceding penalties.
Another French infringement allowed Sexton to edge the Irish into a 9-3 lead just at the moment his Racing-Metro team-mate Teddy Thomas exited having been injured in a tackle by Mike Ross.
Lopez added three points for France with the clock ticking down to half-time to leave the Irish with their noses just in front at 9-6, but Sexton had time to restore the six point advantage in the final minute of the half.
However, the Irish fans had to hold their breath five minutes into the second-half as Bastareaud’s head clashed with Sexton’s and both emerged bloodied, though the Irishman looked groggier than his French opponent.
Sexton’s replacement Ian Madigan carried on from where his predecessor had left off and added a penalty in the 51st minute for 15-6 as France coach Philippe Saint-Andre refreshed his whole front row.
Lopez, though, missed the penalty while Heaslip, still feeling the effects of the Pape incident, had to go off.
Despite still being a man down Sexton, swollen eye and all, added a penalty with 12 minutes remaining to make it 18-6.
However just as the sin bin was due to finish for Best, France finally crossed the tryline with Vincent Debaty passing to the giant replacement lock Taofifenua who strolled over – Lopez missed the conversion to leave them a converted try away from a draw.
Centre Jonathan Joseph grabbed a brace of tries as England gained their second win and swept aside a brave Italian side 47-17 with a dominant second half display at Twickenham.
No.8 Billy Vunipola, scrum-half Ben Youngs and replacements Danny Cipriani and Nick Easter also went over for England, who again fell behind in a game before rallying and then surging clear.
They had been stunned by a fine early try from Italy captain Sergio Parisse while centre Luca Morisi also crossed twice for the visitors in the second half.
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England full-back Mike Brown became rugby’s latest concussion victim as he was knocked cold and out of the match after just 12 minutes. His head collided with the shoulder of Italy centre Andrea Masi and he was treated on the field before being taken off on a stretcher.
But he soon recovered and was not taken to hospital but took a seat in the dugout to watch the rest of the match.
England eventually ran out easy winners with a strong second half display against a tiring Italian side, which had been beaten 26-3 by the Irish in Rome the week before.
The visitors had not scored a Test try for 254 minutes. Yet they stunned England after just three minutes as the powerful Parisse, who grabbed the previous one against Samoa in November, bull-dozed his way over.
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