Sexton believes Ireland can pass French exam and win Six Nations

Dublin (AFP) –


Ireland captain Johnny Sexton says it will be tough securing the bonus point win against France in Paris next Saturday to assure them of the Six Nations title but if "anyone can do it, we can."

The 35-year-old fly-half scored 18 points in Ireland's 50-17 victory over Italy at Lansdowne Road on Saturday to set up a thrilling climax in the final weekend of the northern hemisphere rugby championship.

Sexton admitted playing to an empty stadium -- due to coronavirus pandemic protocols -- had meant he and his team-mates had had to create "their own energy."

That did not transfer itself into the singing of the national anthems.

"I mimed most of it, it is very strange hearing yourself sing," said Sexton, who had cast a quizzical look at the team-mate beside him after the first of Ireland's two anthems.

However, Sexton was far happier with what took place afterwards -- to the background of piped crowd noise -- even if one of his passes led to an intercepted try.

"France are an outstanding team and we have our work cut out," he said. "However, if anyone can do it (the bonus point win) we can."

Sexton memorably dropped a last-second winning goal in Paris in 2018 which set the Irish on their way to the Grand Slam.

However, with England likely to secure a bonus point win in Rome against an Italian side who have yet to register a point the Irish require four tries this time round.

The French too entertain hopes of winning the title as they, like England, are just a point adrift of Ireland.

- 'Lot of belief' -

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell says defence could be the key to winning the title.

"If we defend like we did for most parts of the game we give ourselves a chance of achieving that," said Farrell.

"It is great to take momentum into next week. The French have a fantastic squad and it is an unbelievable task to go and win there.

"We have rebooted our campaign and we have taken ourselves into the last week with a chance of winning the title and that is all you can ask for."

Sexton and Farrell were more than pleased with Saturday's performance.

Farrell was not even ruffled by a sloppy opening by Ireland to the second-half when they were still one try short of the four required for a bonus point win.

"Look, games never go according to plan and you always have to be patient," he said.

"You cannot expect it to flow in the second half and the floodgates to open. I loved how we were patient and corrected our mistakes."

Both Farrell and Sexton praised the Test debuts of Leinster duo, wing Hugo Keenan and flanker Will Connors.

Both scored tries -- Keenan becoming the first Irish player to score two tries on debut since Dave Kearney in 2013 against Samoa.

Connors, though, with his tireless tackling was named man of the match.

Keenan said scoring the tries was "the stuff of dreams" even in an empty stadium -- he was not upset another one was ruled out due to an infringement by James Ryan.

The 24-year-old knows cracking the French defence is another thing entirely but they have the wind in their sails.

"It is a huge ask as it is such a tough place to go," he said.

"However, coming off that performance will give us a lot of belief. We will give it a good crack next week."

Italy coach Franco Smith said his side had been "under-cooked" but he felt the several youngsters he blooded on Saturday will be the better for it.

One of them fly-half Paolo Garbisi -- 15 years younger than Sexton -- scored a superb solo try right at the end.

"Now he knows what test rugby is like," said Smith.

"He handled the pressure well and never lost his cool despite some kicks going astray. He will go on from here."