Ireland got their bid for unprecedented back-to-back Grand Slams off to the perfect start with a bonus-point 38-17 victory over 14-man France in the opening match of the Six Nations in Marseille on Friday.
Jamison Gibson-Park, Tadhg Beirne, Calvin Nash, Dan Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher all crossed for tries as fly-half Jack Crowley converted all five and hit a penalty.
France had Paul Willemse sent off in the 32nd minute after two yellow cards as the team slipped to their heaviest defeat since Fabien Galthie took over as head coach in 2019.
“We’re not going to get carried away here,” Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony told ITV.
“We’ve certainly got a bit of momentum. It was a good performance which is what you want to start off with in a campaign like this. We’ll go an analyse it and we want to get better. That’s what we want to do and kick on.”
France centre Gael Fickou lamented Willemse’s sending off.
“They outclassed us in every domain,” he said. “Very quickly it was 14 v 15 when 15 v 15 was already very complicated.
“At 14 it was too much of an ask and they had their noses in front too. They thoroughly deserve their victory, there is no debate about that.”
Many had pegged this tournament opener as the World Cup final that should have been.
On French soil, the hosts and Ireland looked like the teams destined for the ultimate battle for the Webb Ellis Cup, but eventual winners South Africa and New Zealand had other thoughts, ending both teams’ hopes at the quarter-final stage.
While there have been some personnel changes, both Galthie and Ireland counterpart Andy Farrell have espoused policies of an evolution in progress over total revolution, both keen not to describe the match as a potential title decider.
Johnny Sexton’s retirement opened the door for Crowley, while Antoine Dupont has opted to sit out the Six Nations as he prepares to represent France in rugby sevens in this summer’s Paris Olympics.
Crowley settled his nerves by getting the scoreboard ticking with a seventh-minute penalty.
South Africa-born lock Willemse, who missed the World Cup through injury, was then yellow carded for a shoulder-on-head clearout of Andrew Porter.
And the Irish eventually made their numerical superiority count, centre Bundee Aki making a halfbreak and offloading to fellow New Zealander Gibson-Park on his inside, the ever-present scrum-half dotting down under the posts for a try.
– Reckless tackle –
Thomas Ramos finally got France going with a penalty, but Ireland fired straight back up the pitch, Crowley delivering a beautifully delayed pass to Beirne to allow the lock to get inside Jonathan Danty for a clean run-in under the posts.
Things went from bad to worse for the home side when Willemse received a second yellow card in the 32nd minute for a reckless tackle, this time on Caelan Doris, meaning he would take no further part in the match.
A French decision to kick to the corner backfired after Beirne was hoisted high to pick off Peato Mauvaka’s throw-in, handing the advantage briefly back to the Irish before they infringed.
And the French pressure finally paid off, winger Damian Penaud moving within two tries of Philippe Sella’s national record of 38 tries with a well-worked five-pointer.
Thomas Ramos converted to make it 17-10, the perfect tonic on the stroke of half-time for a team that was outplayed for large parts of the opening 40 minutes.
The French full-back saw a long-range penalty fall short early in the second period as Ireland responded with a fantastic third try.
After a string of forward thrusts, the ball was worked left, a Robbie Henshaw offload from the floor finding Doris who drew the last man to play Nash in at the corner.
Recalled lock Paul Gabrillagues was then driven over for France’s second try, Ramos converting, to bring France right back into contention with O’Mahony simultaneously sin binned for pulling a maul down.
Ireland kept their structure, however, Sheehan peeling off the back of an attacking line-out maul for their bonus-point fourth try.
Kelleher bagged Ireland’s fifth moments later, Crowley converting for a personal tally of 13 points, for a dominant victory, and disappoinment for France.
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