But after Anthony Belleau missed a chance to extend France’s lead with a penalty two minutes from time, Ireland advanced up the field and Sexton landed a drop goal from more than 40 metres out to transport the travelling supporters into raptures and leave France's despondent players flat out on the pitch.
"He did it with absolute aplomb,” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. “Credit to Johnny. He was struggling and he had a bit of cramp at the time.
"But his clarity of thought and ability to win it in those big moments is second to none."
Schmidt said he had feared Thomas's wonder try could have broken his team's resolve.
"One freakish event and one freakishly good player can undo all that good work," said Schmidt. "It's pretty hard to explain how you feel when you think that the game's got away and you've let it slip, and suddenly you've grabbed it!"
Brunel described the loss as cruel. "What can you feel but huge frustration? It happened in the 82nd minute but that's the way it is," said the 64-year-old coach, who replaced Guy Novès in December.
"I don't know if it's deserved, or if they deserved it. We had a chance to seal victory with Belleau’s penalty but unfortunately it went past the post.
"We weren't far from having it in the bag so it's even harder to swallow and accept that we lost the match."