Ireland's Keith Earls breaks through to score a try against France during their Six Nations rugby union international match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Sunday. Photo: Peter Morrison/AP

DUBLIN – Defending Six Nation champions Ireland kept alive their hopes of retaining their title with a clinical 26-14 win over France at Lansdowne Road on Sunday.

The hosts gave a far more assured performance than in their previous three matches and had the game sealed by half-time leading 19-0 after scoring three tries through captain Rory Best, Johnny Sexton and Jack Conan.

Keith Earls secured the bonus point with a fourth try in the second-half to give both coach Joe Schmidt and Best a victory in what was their final Six Nations home match.

The hosts had lost just once at home under Schmidt in the Six Nations – to England this year. They were not destabilised by the late withdrawal of Rob Kearney and only resilient French defence prevented a slaughter.

Best’s try – his 10th for his country in 116 Tests – came in the opening five minutes. After the French conceded a penalty, Sexton kicked into touch and from the line-out. Best powered past French scrum-half Antonie Dupont. Sexton converted for 7-0.

In a rare foray outside their half in the first period, France crossed the line but Damian Penaud was judged to have knocked as he gathered a cross-field kick before passing to Thomas Ramos. Captain Guilhem Guirado gave a rueful Gallic shrug as referee Ben O’Keeffe ruled out the try.

The Irish missed a golden opportunity after sustained pressure as Cian Healy went to touch down but instead knocked it on.

The battered and bruised French lost two of their starting pack inside the opening 20 minutes but the Irish failed to hammer home their advantage as the visitors defended resolutely.

Dupont drove Sexton back into touch to snuff out one chance but the Ireland flyhalf was not to be denied. On the half-hour mark, he took a wonderful pass by Garry Ringrose to touch down. His first Ireland try since 2015  brought up his century of points against the French. Sexton, who had been criticised for his grumpiness, let his frustration out with a roar.

Sexton converted to make it 14-0. Then his sublime up and under was brilliantly taken by Ringrose – leaping above Ramos – only for the tenacious Dupont to bring him down short of the line.

The French were reeling and another piercing attack by the hosts ended with Conan going over – from a fine pass by Conor Murray – for 19-0. Sexton sent his conversion wide.

French coach Jacques Brunel must have had some choice words for his team. They were far livelier after the break.

However, the Irish stamped out a brief renaissance just short of the hour mark. CJ Stander’s lovely pass found Munster team-mate Earls coming in off his wing to run in unopposed for his 30th Test try but first against the French. Sexton converted for 26-0.

With the crucial bonus point in the bag, Schmidt removed Sexton and Murray saving them for the Wales clash which will decide the Six Nations on Saturday. Sexton exited smiling after sporting a scowl when replaced in the win over Italy.

The French showed some spirit to score two late tries one by veteran wing Yoann Huget ensuring they were not held scoreless by the Irish or the first time since December 1928.

AFP