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Gibson-Park: It’s The Perfect Start To See Where We’re At

Gibson-Park: It’s The Perfect Start To See Where We’re At

Ireland scrum half Jamison Gibson-Park is excited to take on France in Friday night's eagerly-awaited opening match of the 2024 Guinness Men's Six Nations Championship ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Ireland have arguably their toughest test first up, travelling to 2022 Grand Slam winners France, and Jamison Gibson-Park says that Friday’s Guinness Six Nations opener will prove a real indicator of where both teams are at following the Rugby World Cup.

If results had gone a different way, Ireland and tournament hosts France could have met in the World Cup final in late October. Instead, the European challenge faltered and it was South Africa who retained their title against Southern Hemisphere rivals New Zealand.

Ireland and France are understandably eager to put their World Cup quarter-final disappointment firmly behind them when they kick off the 2024 Championship at Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome on Friday night.

It may be viewed by many as a fresh start, but scrum half Gibson-Park feels the dawn of a new Six Nations campaign gives Ireland the chance to improve their game further while working off the excellent foundations of Andy Farrell’s first four years in charge.

“I think it’s very much continuing on from what we’ve built over the last number of years. Not just the World Cup, you know, it’s what went on before that,” he said, speaking this week at the Ireland squad’s training camp in Portugal.

“There’s obviously been a few harsher lessons throughout the World Cup period, but it’s been great to be back in camp. Everyone’s been in good form.

It’s obviously great to be back here, such a class facility in Portugal. Yeah, things are building nicely. It was a tough period after the World Cup.

“We’ve obviously got plenty of things we’ve taken from the game (against New Zealand). We’ve looked back over a lot of that footage.

“Every time one of those clips comes up, it’s pretty hard to watch, but there are many lessons to be learned, like I said. Hopefully we’ll see a bit of it out there on Friday night.”

This will be Gibson-Park’s fifth Six Nations tournament, having made his debut against Italy during the delayed 2020 Championship. He returned from a hamstring injury for the final two matches of last season’s Grand Slam success.

The Leinster star is yet to taste victory against France, having missed last February’s memorable encounter in Dublin through injury. His three previous appearances ended in defeat to les Bleus, including the 30-24 loss from two years ago when he sniped over for a smartly-taken try.

“France were the same (as us), they experienced World Cup heartbreak as well. They’ll be keen to get stuck back into things. A massive home game for them in Marseille, a bit of a change-up from Paris.

“So I’m sure they’ll be fired up, but we’re looking forward to it for sure. It’s going to be an unbelievably tough place to go. No doubt it’s going to be a great challenge and one that we’ll look forward to.”

Apart from some untimely injuries in the back-three and front row, the two major absentees from Ireland’s 34-player Six Nations squad are retired pair Jonathan Sexton and Keith Earls.

Gibson-Park has had to get used to life without Sexton at Leinster, and his seven appearances for the province since the World Cup have seen him start at half-back alongside either Sam Prendergast, Ross Byrne, Harry Byrne, or Ciaran Frawley.

While Harry Byrne and Frawley are both pressing for their Six Nations debuts, Munster’s Jack Crowley, with nine Ireland caps to his name, is in pole position to begin the post-Sexton era as Ireland’s starting out-half on Friday.

Gibson-Park was giving little away, but clearly rates the Cork youngster highly, saying: “I would have worked a lot with Ciaran and Harry over the last few years obviously (at Leinster), and a bit with Jack over the last number of months.

“All great leaders in their own right. They can all march a team around a pitch. It’s been great working with them. The 10s in camp are stepping up and leaving their mark.

“Johnny was such a huge influence over this team for so many years. I’m sure Jack will be looking to make his own mark as well. Hopefully you’ll see it all over the next few weeks.”

After their 17-match winning streak came to an end in the last-eight of the World Cup, Farrell’s charges will not be lacking in motivation as they bid to retain their Six Nations crown and emulate the Joe Schmidt-coached sides of 2014 and 2015.

Ireland had a brilliant reaction to their most recent defeat, bouncing back from losing the first Test to win the 2022 summer series against the All Blacks in historic fashion. Marseille awaits and the goal is to produce another top drawer performance on the road.

“It’s been a massive journey for this squad. A lot of these guys have been in and around this team for a good number of years, not just the World Cup but stuff we went through before, going down to New Zealand and doing pretty well there,” explained Gibson-Park.

“There’s been good lessons and bad lessons, but I think it’s important that we get things right and start a new campaign, because it’s kind of what it feels like, I suppose, in a way.”

He added: “It’s obviously unbelievably tough (to win the Six Nations), and it’s the perfect start really for us to see where we’re at, facing France in their back yard. There’s no shortage of motivation surely, throughout this team.”