Jack Crowley was only two months old when Brian O’Driscoll floored France with his famous hat-trick of tries back in 2000. Since then, Ireland have beaten France on French soil just two more times, in 2014 and 2018.
That is the size of the task facing Andy Farrell’s men when they launch their Guinness Six Nations title defence in Marseille on Friday night. Crowley makes his first Championship start, combining at half-back with Jamison Gibson-Park for only the second time.
Robbie Henshaw and Six Nations debutants Calvin Nash and Joe McCarthy are the other changes to the team that lost 28-24 to New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup. A shoulder injury has ruled out Garry Ringrose.
France also bowed out at the quarter-final stage of the World Cup, and that defeat to South Africa was their first loss on home soil since losing to Scotland in 2021, ending a run of 18 consecutive victories in France.
With the Stade de France unavailable due to preparations for the Olympics in Paris, Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome will host Friday’s much-anticipated match. France head coach Fabien Galthié says they could have ‘filled the Vélodrome three times over – France loves playing there’.
Les Bleus are unbeaten at home, away from Paris, under Galthié. They have played seven Tests away from their regular Saint-Denis base in the last four years and won all seven, including triumphs over South Africa (30-26) and Namibia (96-0) in Marseille.
Asked if beating France on Friday would represent one of the great Irish Rugby wins, Farrell replied: “I think so, as in we all realise it’s a huge game. It’s mouth-watering, isn’t it? It will be a great game to watch, I’m sure, there’s no doubt about that.
“The stadium, the atmosphere, it being the first game of the Six Nations after a World Cup. If you can’t get excited about that as I keep saying, you’re in the wrong place.
“For us, it’s just living up to our own expectations, we expect to perform on the big stage and it doesn’t really get any bigger than this one.”
A glance back at this fixture’s history down through the years shows how difficult it has been for Ireland to win away. They edged out France 22-20 to win the 2014 title in O’Driscoll’s final game, and won the first leg of the 2018 Grand Slam by the same narrow margin.
France’s last seven victories over Ireland, stretching back to 2011, have all been by eight points or less, and there have also been two draws during that period. The recent results underline how much every point matters when these two sides collide.
Farrell knows his charges will have to be at their sharpest, both physically and mentally, in order to return to winning ways. Not converting pressure into points cost them against the All Blacks, and they cannot afford to be as profligate against a fired-up France.
To be more ruthless is what we’re all (after), that’s the gold standard, isn’t it? The reality is that when you’re playing against good sides like we are in France, it’s not going to be perfect.
“It’s how we deal with our disappointment, because our expectations are high, and just getting on with what’s in front of our face and not compounding (errors).
“So, the way that we train and pressure we put on each other. There’s plenty of imperfections, but how we work on our mentality to get to that next moment is getting better all the time.”
He added: “It’s an emotional game, isn’t it? You need to get to a point to physically play this game, to be in control of your thoughts when things aren’t quite going your way. It’s a skill that needs to be constantly honed in on.
“We’re down that road, we’ve been down that road for quite some time but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”
Both France and Ireland have gone for a forward-heavy, six-two split on the bench, with Ryan Baird, James Ryan, who missed the World Cup quarter-final with a wrist injury, and Jack Conan offering more cover for the second row and back row.
Going with the six-two option is ‘what we feel is the right thing for this game’ according to Farrell, who explained: “We all know it’s going to be a war of attrition, set-piece is premium in any game that you play against France.
“They’re big men, the size of their pack, and they’re very accurate as far as the set-piece is concerned. But not just that, with where we’re playing, the conditions, and the type of game that France can also play in the broken-field, we think it’s going to be a fast game as well.
“So, if you look at our bench, the power and pace that we’ve got within that pack to come on and finish the game strong is something that we think will work in our favour this time around.”
There is certainly a huge amount of excitement surrounding Ireland’s first round clash with France, particularly around how the squad bounces back from their World Cup disappointment, and moves on without the retired Jonathan Sexton and Keith Earls.
Along with a new captain in Peter O’Mahony, there are fresh combinations in the back-three and at lock with the inclusion of Nash and McCarthy. The latter will pack down alongside Tadhg Beirne, having been in the engine room together for part of the second half against Italy last August.
Looking forward to seeing how they fare, along with the Crowley-Gibson-Park partnership that had a successful debut against Australia in 2022, Farrell noted: “The exciting thing for me is are we brave enough, have we got enough courage to go and do what we said we’re going to do?
“Obviously we’re playing against a world class side, but taking your opportunity and being the best version of ourselves is the expectation that we have of ourselves, so living up to that is going to be demanding for us.
“But if you want to be successful, if you want to try to be the best, then you’ve got to beat the best in places like this and the occasion doesn’t get much bigger. We’ve got to relish these types of occasions and go after them.”