Dan Sheehan goes over for the fourth of Ireland's five tries against France on Friday night. [Inpho/Dan Sheehan]

Ireland stun Les Bleus in 6 Nations opener in Marseille

Ireland 38; France 17

From the low point of a World Cup exit against the All Blacks in Paris 100 days before to the absolute high of a record victory against the French in Marseille on Friday night — such are the vicissitudes of Andy Farrell’s green giants.

Returning to France to face the home side was without doubt the toughest assignment Farrell’s side could have faced in the 2024 Six Nations and they surprised virtually everyone, maybe even themselves, by turning in such a great performance which ended up in a record victory margin against Les Bleus.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Factor in the end of the Johnny Sexton era, the inclusion of 6 Nations debutants Joe McCarthy and Calvin Nash and the loss through injury of Mack Hansen and Garry Ringrose and you can understand why most people, including the likes of former Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll, were pre-match predicting a French win.

What they didn’t know was how well McCarthy would play to end up as man of the match; how composed Nash would be to score a try and how cool Sexton’s deputy and successor, Jack Crowley, would prove in the white heat of battle to wipe the bad things in his performance as he drove the men in green on both with his general play and his six out of seven scoring attempts from placed balls.

Yes, France were without their  talisman and captain Antoine Dupont, who is Olympics-bound with the Sevens, but they had home advantage and more importantly we felt, home advantage down in the heartland of the nation’s rugby playing area.

What was laudatory about Ireland was the way they went about their task from the first whistle. Instead of allowing France the front-foot advantage, the visitors, with Jamison Gibson-Park orchestrating a high tempo from the base of scrum and ruck, tore into the French.

By the time lock Paul Willemse had earned his dismissal for France with two high tackles which necessitated two yellow cards, the pattern of the game was already established with Ireland probing for openings and France hoping to pounce on mistakes in broken play.

Crowley kicked a penalty after a few penetrating runs had ended prematurely before Jamison Gibson-Park and the marauding Tadhg Beirne stormed over for seven-pointers to give Ireland a comfortable 17-3 lead.

Referee Karl Dickson then began to penalize Ireland as if trying to make it up to France for the dismissal, giving them dubious penalties which put Ireland on the back foot. This led on the cusp of half-time to Damian Penaud charging over to score  his 36th try in 49 international games, leaving the score at 17-10 at the break.

There was the prospect that could have roused France into a memorable comeback but Ireland stayed in the zone and once Nash was allowed an easy run in for the Irish third try, it was an uphill battle for the home team again.

There were further twists and turns as Paul Gabrillagues' try reduced arrears  and Peter O'Mahony was forced to sit it out from the 52nd minute for 10 mins following his yellow card for collapsing a maul.

If Andy Farrell was going to worry, maybe this was the time for it.  Except his charges assuaged such doubts very quickly as the players worked brilliantly as a unit to resist the French effort to get over for their third try.

Ireland then turned the screw themselves as the two hookers Dan Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher, used the bulk of the pack to smuggle over for two great team tries near the corner, both of which were converted by Crowley from the acutest of angles to bolster his and his team’s confidence going down the home strait.

Afterwards, the head coach was delighted with how Ireland had played, particularly at times when questions were being asked of them. “It's something we've continued to work hard on, making sure that we don't get too ahead of ourselves or too down on ourselves. We were excellent in that regard, albeit a 10-minute period before half-time when there was a knock-on effect of a couple of penalties we gave away.

"We lost our way a little bit at the start of the second half, but all in all I thought we were really good. The players spoke about it after the game - the composure was great and we were able to get on to the next moment. We didn't become too fazed,” he emphasized.

Speaking about Crowley’s performance, Farrell went on: "His composure at the line was great. He made some really nice decisions and some poor ones as well, and he'll know that better than anyone. The strength of character with his goal-kicking. To miss that one in front but then to knock them over from the sideline showed immense character.

"It's a good start for him and for us as a team. Hopefully he'll get better and we'll benefit from that as well.

"A French side that's always going to pose questions and the crowd was always going to get behind them at times, but we managed to silence them quite a lot through good composure with how we played the game.

"It's something, as you’ve heard us talking about over the last couple of years, we continue to work on, making sure that we don’t get too ahead of ourselves or too down on ourselves," he added.

New skipper Peter O’Mahony said the win was right up there in his career. "I don't think it gets any better really. With the stress of the last couple of days I’d have given the whole lot up for a win tonight. Away from home, first game up, Friday night, Marseille, the Velodrome, I’d have been a happy man packing the whole lot in tomorrow morning if you’d given me the chance to take a win."

"No, it has to be right up there. I said inside it’s the biggest margin that we’ve beaten France by. I remember as a young fellah, watching Irish teams, and you’d be hoping that they’d hang on in there, whereas it’s a different animal now," he stressed.

And now the World Cup defeat is a distant memory as we go about getting better and better and hopefully making a mark before the next World Cup in Australia.