Ireland head coach Andy Farrell praised his players’ ability to deal with setbacks and come back stronger following an impressive start to their Guinness Men’s Six Nations title defence in Marseille.
France lost experienced lock Paul Willemse to a 30th-minute red card, but stayed in the fight and twice closed the gap to seven points thanks to tries from Damian Penaud, just before half-time, and Paul Gabrillagues.
Despite unloading their powerful bench and the home crowd at the Stade Vélodrome raising the decibel level, les Bleus could not contain a try-hungry Ireland who bagged their bonus point while captain Peter O’Mahony was in the sin.
A second maul score saw replacement Ronan Kelleher round off a terrific 38-17 opening night win, adding to earlier efforts from Jamison Gibson-Park (15 minutes), Tadhg Beirne (29), Six Nations debutant Calvin Nash (45), and Dan Sheehan (61).
Joe McCarthy was to the manor born in the tight exchanges, deservedly winning the player-of-the-match award on his Six Nations bow, while Jack Crowley marked his first Championship start with 13 points, including a couple of conversions tight to the left touchline.
An unblemished lineout performance with 13 wins on their own throw, and consistent pressure applied to the French set-piece, was another obvious positive for Farrell following Ireland’s highest ever points total against France and their biggest winning margin in the fixture since 1913 (24-0).
“In all honesty, and I think you guys would agree, we’d take any type of win here, in Marseille on a Friday night, the first game to kick off the Six Nations,” he said, speaking at the post-match press conference.
“I suppose the more the game was going on, the more you saw a performance building. I thought we got exactly what we deserved in the end.
“As a team, certainly our composure (impressed me) because it wasn’t all singing, all dancing, 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. The main thing for me would have been our ability to just stay on it for the full 80 minutes and keep attacking the game.
“When you’re playing against 14 men for a long period, sometimes subconsciously you tend to shut up shop a little bit more.
“I thought our intent was pretty good, and we were pretty ruthless when we needed to be. Obviously on top of that, I thought our lineout in attack and defence was outstanding.”
While Ireland had a number of new faces involved for their first game since the Rugby World Cup, the reality is that these players have been diligently building for this moment for some time. McCarthy and Crowley were first capped in 2022 and learned a lot from their World Cup involvement.
On the back of winning the BKT United Rugby Championship with Munster, the 26-year-old Nash timed his run perfectly to break into the team at a time when key men were missing in the back-three ranks.
Farrell, who also sprung Ciaran Frawley from the bench for his Six Nations debut, was always confident that his Championship novices would step up to the plate and perform well in what was an intense Marseille cauldron at times.
“Obviously delighted for them. It’s not something that surprises us as a group because these lads have been involved in and around the group for a number of years.
Some have been waiting for their chance, some have been playing so well that you can’t keep them out of the squad. The best thing about this team in this moment in time is exactly that – it’s a team.
“We all pull in the right direction, so therefore it doesn’t really matter whether you’re Pete (O’Mahony) – and you’re touching 42, 43! – or you’re Joe McCarthy who is a young buck trying to make his way. Everyone’s in the same boat pulling in the same direction.
“It doesn’t surprise me that those young guys or those inexperienced guys that you’re talking about have performed, because they tend to feel comfortable in their own skin within the environment.”
Such is the calibre of the French team, with winger Penaud the Championship’s top try scorer for the last two years and a behemoth pack that can really pack a punch, they did have their moments despite producing a below-par collective performance.
That late first half momentum, through a series of penalties, translated into a converted score for Penaud, and Ireland were hit with a double whammy when Gabrillagues’ 52nd-minute try was awarded and O’Mahony was dispatched to the bin.
The pressure was back on Ireland at that stage, their lead reduced to 24-17 and the playing numbers evened up. Their response was definitive, a big bomb from Crowley causing trouble in the hosts’ 22, Robbie Henshaw carrying brilliantly, and then Sheehan crashed over from a maul.
“As you’ve heard us talking about it over the last couple of years, it’s something that we continue to work hard on – making sure that we don’t get too ahead of ourselves or we don’t get too down on ourselves,” commented the Ireland coach.
“I thought we were excellent in that regard, albeit probably a 10-minute period before half-time where there was a knock-on effect from a couple of penalties that we’re given away.
“We lost our way a little bit, start of the second half, whether it was our fault or not in regards to a couple of penalties that didn’t go our way. It was a five or six-minute period. But all in all, I thought we were really, really good.
“Even the players talked about it at half-time and after the match there, that the composure was great, (being) able to get on to the next moment and keep on building our game. So I don’t think we became too fazed, albeit it wasn’t perfect.”
The task now is to build on what was achieved in France’s oldest city, as Farrell’s men return to a sold-out Aviva Stadium for two back-to-back home matches against Italy (Sunday week) and Wales (February 24).
The spotlight was on Crowley this week given he was first to fill the number 10 jersey following Jonathan Sexton’s retirement. It was a daunting challenge, and there were some miscues, but the 24-year-old embraced it all and contributed handsomely to a memorable victory on the Mediterranean coast.
“He typifies exactly what we’re talking about,” explained Farrell. “There’s no doubt that a young kid playing in a position like Jack is at 10, with the responsibility of that…but then obviously all week, and rightly so, everyone’s talking about how were we going to deal without having Johnny at the helm, etc., and Jack’s going to be the one that has the first shot at filling the shoes.
“It definitely creeps in. You would be a liar if you said it didn’t, but he gains his strength from knowing that his team-mates are prepared and are there to help.
“I thought his composure at the line was great. He made some really nice decisions and some poor ones at that, as well. He’ll know that more than anyone else.
“I thought the strength of character regarding his goal-kicking when he missed the one in front, albeit from a longer distance, nut then to knock them over from the sideline, two on the trot from the sideline, shows immense character really.
“It’s a good start for him, it’s a good start for us as a team. Hopefully he’ll get better and we’ll benefit from that as well.”