BORDEAUX, France (AP) — Jonathan Sexton was bent over, clutching his left wrist, and Ireland and its supporters held their breath.
Ireland's prized asset in their determined bid to win the Rugby World Cup for the first time was playing his first match in six months on Saturday and appeared in pain.
Sexton had turned casually to flop between the posts for a try and braced his fall with his left arm — the same arm that Romania back Jason Tomane, too late to spoil the try, slid in and slammed.
Sexton hung behind the posts, rubbing his wrist. Then the flyhalf converted his try and all was OK, as was Ireland in a record-setting 82-8 win against Romania.
The 82 was Ireland's highest World Cup score, and second highest all time. Ireland also extended its record-long winning streak to 14 tests.
But this Pool B match was all about Sexton.
He'd been sidelined since the Six Nations Grand Slam-clinching win over England in March. A groin injury and suspension kept him off the field but, back in an Ireland jersey, he was the boss the team relies on and follows.
“I'm delighted to be back to get to experience something like this. It’s been a long time out,” Sexton said. “You can train all you want, but until you're in a proper match it doesn't test you properly. I'm delighted just to get some minutes under my belt.”
Before kickoff, he was bossing both teams before the anthems to move into shade on the field, a little respite from the 34-degree heat.
Then as soon as he kicked off at Stade de Bordeaux, he became Ireland's oldest player ever at 38.
The old man played like he'd never been gone, though he was caught out in the third minute when his grubber kick was snatched by Romania's busy Hinckley Vaovasa, who split Sexton and Keith Earls and ran in Gabriel Rupanu for a shocking Romania try.
Sexton brushed that off and a beautiful pass launched a try for Jamison Gibson-Park two minutes later, and Ireland was away.
The captain handled his first receiver role superbly, and even made three runs and three tackles in the first half.
By the time he was replaced after 66 minutes to a standing ovation from Ireland supporters, he'd racked up two tries and seven of eight goalkicks for a personal haul of 24 points, his most ever in 114 tests. That tally took him past Ronan O'Gara for most World Cup points by an Irishman, and closed him within nine points of O'Gara's Ireland points record of 1,083.
Coach Andy Farrell was just happy to have his captain back. “The most important thing for us as a group is he got through 60-odd minutes and played pretty well. Healthy, and ready to go next week.”
Romania was game to the end but the passing and support between the Ireland forwards and backs was in another class.
Ireland notched 12 tries with braces for Sexton, Peter O'Mahony, Bundee Aki, and Tadhg Beirne. They had an admirable ruthlessness.
“We put together some phases that we're happy with,” O'Mahony said. “We'll certainly go back and have a look at some of the stuff we left out there — there was plenty of it. But it was a pleasure coming out here today. The fans here, off-the-wall stuff, and 80 points in our first one, we'll take that.”
The size of the defeat was no surprise to Romania, which has been depleted by injuries and suffered from constant lineup changes this year. The Oaks' previous two results were record wins for Georgia, 56-6, and Italy, 57-7.
Romania has South Africa next. Ireland has Tonga.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby
The Associated Press