Ireland begin the defence of their Six Nations Grand Slam against France in the Orange Velodrome in Marseille on Friday night. Nowadays television stations often decide what day of the week a big game is played and the switch from Paris to Marseille is due to the Olympic Games which are being hosted by France in 2024. The Velodrome is home to football club Olympique de Marseille and has a capacity of 67,394. For their other home games this year France will play Italy in Lille and England in Lyon.
The game will kick off at 3 p.m., East Coast time, and will be available via Peacock and CNBC.
It should be pointed out that back-to-back Grand Slams are rare -- France were the last nation to do it, in 1997 and 1998. Even following up a Grand Slam with a non-Slam championship victory is an infrequent phenomenon -- Wales managed it last in 2013 and Ireland achieved it once with a successful title defense in 1949.
Ireland's defense in 2024 begins with a new skipper. Peter O’Mahony has already captained his country 10 times and has also captained the British and Irish Lions, but on Friday night he goes into the Six Nations as the official Irish captain for the first time. Just watch him in action and you will realise that this 34 year-old son of Cork is a great leader. O’Mahony told reporters last week that he didn’t want to talk about his ongoing contract negotiations with Munster, but to concentrate on the French game. Coach Andy Farrell hasn’t named a vice-captain, but we will need one, because at 34 O’Mahony is unlikely to last the full 80 minutes in most of the games.
Antoine Dupont, one of the best fly-half’s in the world, is giving the Six Nations a miss this year, so that he play Sevens Rugby for France at the Olympic Games. Dupont suffered a cheekbone injury early in the World Cup campaign last Autumn, but returned to play in the knock-out stages, where France lost by a point to eventual winners South Africa and Ireland were beaten by 4 points by runners-up New Zealand.
After winning in Stade Colombes in 1972, Ireland didn’t win again in Paris until 2000 when Brian O’Driscoll famously scored three tries in Saint Denis in March of that year. Our record is somewhat better in recent years, but we have only won there twice since then, in 2014 and 2018. Ireland won the Grand Slam last year and another Grand Slam might make up for that World Cup disappointment last October. France are brilliant at home and love to throw the ball around. But captain O’Mahony says this current Irish squad is ‘‘bursting with big personalities and quality players.’’
P.J. Cunningham adds:
Whither Ireland after a Grand Slam last year, a World Cup that promised more than it delivered and a team without the massive influence of the now retired Johnny Sexton?
Throw in the fact that this is the season when we play the two big teams - France and England away — and you are left scratching your head about what truly you can expect of the Andy Farrell-coached bunch for 2024.
Farrell himself is a great here and now man and doesn’t do two or four year cycles following World Cups or retirements.
He will lead his team out on Friday evening and will tell his players to trust in their game and their training and let the result take care of itself.
As we’ve seen in his era, he is happy to put his trust in youth and will not flinch when he tells Jack Crowley to go out and fill Sexton’s massive football boots.
After making Sexton his captain four years ago at 34, there was little surprise that he chose Peter O’Mahony at a similar age to take over the baton on-field.
The wing forward is a warrior who has captained both Ireland the the British and Irish Lions in the past so this accolade won’t faze him one bit. Hopefully the new responsibility will see him bring out even more collective spirit as the Munster man has that all-for-one and one-for-all ability to get the best out of his charges.
Just as in the past when we have had injuries, we face France at the weekend without Mack Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien but Farrell will see that as an opportunity for the likes of Jordan Larmour or Jacob Stockdale to shine in the 14 jersey.
The pack has returned from their quarter-final loss in Paris to New Zealand largely intact and the addition of Joe McCarthy looks like upping our option in the middle of the scrum going forward.
France are without Antoine Dupont at scrum-half as he embarks on Sevens duties and Emile N-tamack means their halfbacks will likely be Bordeaux-Begles scrum-half fMaxime Lucu and his half-back clubmate Matthieu Jalibert.
The surroundings will be a big factor in favor of France in this instance but Ireland under Farrell have shown an ability to go anywhere and find a way to win. Let’s hope they keep up that form in Marseille but a losing bonus point won’t be the worst result in the world either as it is likely we will have championship rather than Grand Slam winners in this year’s tournament.
Jack Crowley during Ireland Rugby Squad Training the Campus, Faro, Portugal, last Friday. [Inpho/Dan Sheridan]