For the last two seasons, the winner of this fixture has gone on to win the grand slam, too. Given the way Ireland went about their work in this 38-17 victory in Marseille, you guess they’re going to take an awful lot of stopping again this year, more of it, perhaps, than any of the other four teams in the championship can offer.
Three months on from the World Cup, the game was pitched as a little glimpse of the final that might have been. In fact, only the Irish were in anything like the same sort of form they had been in that tournament. Really, the game was a first look at these two teams’ answers to the question they’ve both had hanging over them ever since those last moments of the knock-out rounds – what now? France clearly have not come up with an answer, yet. They were all over the place, their performance was strewn with handling errors and missed tackles.
They badly missed Antoine Dupont’s leadership, and his ability to turn a game when it’s going against his team. Ireland, on the other hand, came on as strong and slick as ever, and even better at the set-pieces.
Ireland had clearly been doing some repair work on their lineout, which was pretty rickety by the end of the World Cup. France tested it early with a kick to touch, the Irish won that one with a throw to Tadhg Beirne, and two more after it in the next few minutes.
One was in their own 22, after Damian Penaud was tackled into touch by Hugo Keenan, the other in France’s, after Peter O’Mahony gamely chose to have Jack Crowley kick a penalty into the corner. That lineout wound up with a penalty just in front of the posts, which Crowley kicked to give them a three-nil lead.
First blood to the Irish then, and they seemed to grow stronger for the sight of it. Minutes later, they were a man up too, after Paul Willemse was shown a yellow card, and sent to the bunker, after he clattered into Andrew Porter’s head. Porter was tackling Mathieu Jalibert at the time, and Willemse, charging through afterwards, caught him square on the jaw with his shoulder. The French finally won a little bit of relief nine minutes later when the referee, Karl Dickson, told their skipper Grégory Alldritt that Willemse was going to be allowed back into the game. Temporarily so, as it turned out.
Alldritt didn’t have much time to enjoy the good news. Moments later Jamison Gibson-Park scored Ireland’s first try. It came off the back of a couple of barnstorming runs by Bundee Aki, who has clearly brought his red hot form from the World Cup with him into this year’s championship. France have one of the beefier midfields in Jonathan Danty and Gaël Fickou, but Aki made hamburger out of them.
The Irish had started so fast that the French were clinging on by their fingernails already. They only just managed to stop Ireland scoring again a few minutes later, when Crowley was tackled just short of the line, and the ball was held up under Tadhg Furlong after he had dived over it. Crowley missed a penalty from in front afterwards, and the French finally got a toehold in the game when Tomas Ramos kicked their first three points. It signalled another swing in the momentum of the game, in so much as everything immediately started to get much worse for the French.
Moments later Peato Mauvaka hit Crowley with a thumping tackle, which would have been well and good if Crowley had not already shipped the ball on to Beirne, who charged through the yawning hole Mauvaka had left in the French line to score, unopposed, under the posts.
That made it 17-3, then, and then minutes after Willemse was shown a second yellow for yet another shoulder-charge, this one on Caelan Doris. Once, of course as another Irishman memorably put it, may be regarded as a misfortune, twice begins to look like carelessness.
We will need a lip-reader to tell us whether that was what Porter was whispering as Willemse walked off the field. Now they were 14 points down, and only had 14 men left, France finally started to play. They strung together their best attack of the half (to be fair, they only made two of them, so it was slim pickings), and they engineered a four-on-two overlap which allowed Penaud to score to make it 17-10 at the break.
Ireland stretched the play, and their lead with it, early in the second half when Calvin Nash scored in the corner. Which should have settled it, only, as often seems to be the way these days, France played better with 14 than they had with 15.
They rallied when Paul Gabrillagues scored off a pick and go, awarded after an interminable series of replays, and Ireland lost O’Mahony in the same passage of play when he was sent to the sin-bin because he had collapsed a maul in the run-up to it. But that rule works both ways, Ireland scored once more when down to 14 themselves, when Dan Sheehan drove over for the bonus-point try after they kicked another penalty to touch.
Ronan Kelleher added one more from a similar move in the final minutes to make a right old rout of it, ensuring this was Ireland’s biggest ever away win over France.
So Ireland are favourites for the title already, and the French have a whole lot more thinking to do.