Everyone in Irish rugby can at last smile again. It has been a long four months since the agonising defeat in the World Cup quarter-final, but this win was an almost perfect return to French soil to take charge of a Six Nations for which they are now significant favourites.
There was plenty to like from Ireland’s familiar faces in a convincing win over a 14-man France. Bundee Aki was excellent and Caelan Doris too but it was the performance of two newer names that will most please Andy Farrell after a giant stride towards the defence of their grand slam crown. Great faith had been placed by the Ireland head coach in Joe McCarthy and Jack Crowley at lock and fly-half respectively; the pair rewarded Farrell with two fine performances.
For Crowley, this was comfortably the biggest day of his Test career so far, a first Six Nations start arriving on the road under the Friday night lights against the championship favourites, all while stepping into the shoes of an Irish great.
But there was no Johnny Sexton ghost in the Ireland machine, Crowley slotting in seamlessly to keep the engine firing. It will take time for the 24-year-old to exert the same influence as his departed predecessor but there were signs of rich promise here, Ireland controlling the kicking battle and Crowley organising their attack superbly. The key messages from the fly-half may now be delivered with a Limerick lilt rather than in a Dublin drawl but, on this evidence at least, seem to be equally effective.
It could have been a tough night for a young No 10 at a ground regarded even by the most febrile French fans as one of the great sporting amphitheatres. A rare Six Nations visit to the Cote d’Azur promised much in terms of atmosphere, though failed to deliver early on with the hosts slow out of the blocks. While Crowley’s opening punt was charged down, Ireland otherwise played intelligently, pushing France back into their own territory.
An opening penalty arrived from the boot of Crowley on seven minutes, and it wasn’t long before France were in the disciplinary dock with a more serious charge. Paul Willemse’s misjudged clearout resulted in his shoulder making direct contact with the head of Andrew Porter, the lock perhaps a little fortunate that the bunker official felt a change in height was reason enough not to upgrade the sanction.
Confirmation that the card colour would remain yellow came just moments before Ireland made the first telling bust of the game. It came, as was so often the case during the World Cup, from Aki, combining beautifully with Robbie Henshaw to create an open road. Jamison Gibson-Park arrived sharply in the left lane to take Aki’s pass and score.
A sitter of a miss from Crowley threatened to stall Ireland’s momentum, particularly when Thomas Ramos got the hosts on the board from the tee. But the greenhorn fly-half soon made amends for his error, creating a second try with a piece of delightful deception. Taking the ball to the line, a delicious delay drew out Peato Mauvaka, while a flick of the eyes did for Jonathan Danty – Tadhg Beirne had the long strides required to take advantage of the gap created.
France gathered beneath the posts, looking for leaders not immediately apparent and the shot they had yet to fire. Willemse got the wrong message, a strikingly similar misuse of the shoulder with the head of Doris contacted. This time, there was a flash of red – the former Bull would play no further part, the bunker’s upgrading of his second yellow purely administrative with Willemse’s permanent dismissal already confirmed.
By now, the Velodrome was restless, their side’s grand return descending into disaster. A score before half-time was a must, and France did belatedly find purpose. After a series of penalties inside Ireland’s 22, Peato Mauvaka tapped and went himself. Uini Atonio followed his front-row partner to provide the punchy carry required to open a corner around which Mathieu Jalibert and Damian Penaud could bend, the wing moving to within two of Serge Blanco’s French try-scoring record.
Ireland dared not let France rally, ensuring that it was they that hit the ground running out of the interval. With impressive lock McCarthy leading a forceful front-five effort, momentum was gathered inside the home 22. Doris, such a smart operator, picked and passed to ensure continued impetus, leaving Calvin Nash with the simple job of catching and grounding.
Paul Gabrillagues’s sharp strike from close range gave France renewed hope, particularly with Peter O’Mahony dispatched to the sin bin after collapsing a lineout drive. But even absent of their captain, Ireland turned the screw, Dan Sheehan’s maul score the crucial fourth that meant a bonus point was in the bag with 20 minutes to spare.
Ronan Kelleher was a second buried beneficiary late on and it was the Irish fans providing aural accompaniment at full-time. With their new choral conductor Crowley close to note-perfect, Farrell’s men are certainly back in tune.