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‘Ireland were as good as they could have been last night’ – UOG rugby captain Aodha Hession on a memorable night in France.

France and Ireland underachieved at the World Cup both falling at the quarter-final stage with losses to South Africa and New Zealand now the 2024 Six Nations opener had a feel of ‘The final that never was’ about it.

A suffocating performance from the Irish put the World Cup Hangover claims to bed as they punished a rusty and lethargic France in style claiming their biggest-ever away win in France with a 38-14 result.   

It was a night that few could quite believe especially after the World Cup disappointment.

 ‘Happy to get off to a good start after a poor World Cup so good to start well and win away in France Hession on bouncing back from the loss to New Zealand.

There was of course mention of the absence of the legendary Johnny Sexton whose retirement at the end of the 2023 World Cup left Ireland without their leader and captain of the ship but come full time Jack Crowley had done enough to pass the first test with a more than adequate grade.

‘To be honest all Irish fans were a bit sceptical going into last night without Sexton but Crowley did well despite his shaky start and didn’t look out of place’

It wasn’t all perfect, a few optimistic kicks in behind the French defence gave possession away cheaply, something which his predecessor did rarely. But this is the new era and the fly-half isn’t afraid to try something style of his which suits the relentless Irish attack.

A yellow card from Paul Willemse after a high shot on Andrew Porter meant the Irish had a man advantage for ten minutes and they used it well.  

Form player from 2023 Bundee Aki was at the heart of Ireland’s first try. After speedy ruck ball, Ireland found joy in the wide channels with Robbie Henshaw’s delayed pass drawing in Yoram Moefana before shipping onto Aki who breezed past Grégory Alldritt before firing a lovely inside pass to Gibson-Park as the Irish got their rewards for a commanding start.

‘He is a central part of the Irish attack and team and with his central contract, we don’t get to always see him at Connacht but he looks so comfortable in that side. He brings class in defence and attack.’ Hessian on Aki’s role at Ireland.

Despite a wobble from the tee, Crowley was leading another fine attack this time after James Lowe’s big left boot put the visitors just shy of the French 22. With France unable to handle the quick ball, the forwards surged towards the try-line. A few carries from the masterful Joe Macarthy and Henshaw splintered the defence before a beautiful delayed pass from Crowley sent in Tadgh Beirne for a lovely score.

Despite defending that passage with the full complement after Willemse’s yellow stayed that way after a Bunker review, the French had no answer but soon Willemse was about to see yellow once again.

Chasing the restart, the lock rushed up to hit Caleen Dorris but after having just come on and conceding a try his frustrations got the better of him as his shoulder whacked into Dorris and the lock was off once again with the outcome this time red.

‘It was silly of him, to be honest, no idea what he was doing, the first yellow could of have been red, so to do it again, stupid’

France were rattled but suddenly they found some energy as Uni Antonio powered over Porter in two consecutive scrums to send the hosts into Ireland’s 22 for the first time in the match.

Despite stealing two lineouts Karl Dickson wasn’t having it with the offside lines and soon France capitalised, with lineout number three. A steady set-piece gave the hosts some control before whipping it wide to allow Damian Penaud to score the first of what could be many tries in the tournament. With Thomas Ramos’ conversion came halftime and time for a breather after a pulsating half.

The visitors’ energy and power did not waver after the break and soon got their wagon rolling again and with Ireland’s breakdown work smarter than ever, they were soon inside the 22 once more. 

If Crowley’s work for Ireland’s second try was obvious his skill for number three was less pronounced but as effective with his subtle footwork and passes on the line stopping the blitz defense rushing up. Phase after phase the Irish drew in the wide players and then Hugo Keenan pressed the button a lovely wide pass to Henshaw sucked in Antonio and Jalibert before a pass on the deck to Dorris whose equally good pass gave Calvin Nash a dream debut with Ireland’s third try. 

Trailing by 14 points and with 14 men, France needed a platform and when Dickson reversed his penalty decision for offside by Ramos they finally got it. A powerful surge from the maul put them inches away but despite Peter O’Mahony’s illegal intervention, the French recycled with Gabrillagues claiming a must needed score.

Ireland, despite losing their skipper, did not panic and kicked their way into the French, frustrating the hosts for the duration of O’Mahony’s yellow card period. Jack Conon’s arrival then sparked bonus-point hopes, as he combined with Josh Van der Flier who was back to his best wrestled back momentum and territory. An offside from the hosts gave Ireland a 5m lineout.

The Irish hadn’t mauled all day, often faking it before whipping it out the back, five meters short however there was only one option and with Dan Sheenan steering from the back of the maul Ireland collected the fourth and bonus-point try. 

‘Ireland were as good as they could have been last night going away to France and winning with a bonus point is no easy feat’

Four wasn’t enough for the visitors and even after France became frantic, the Irish defence and breakdown work held firm earning them another lineout just shy of the tryline.

This time Ronan Kelleher steered the maul home to rack up the fifth Irish try and cap off a memorable night in Marseille and only Ireland’s fourth win in France since 2000.

Ireland now have consecutive home games against Italy and Wales before visiting England with Scotland coming to Dublin on the final weekend giving them every shot of a grand slam but Hession won’t be dreaming just yet.

‘One game at a time, Italy could have won in Rome last year so we can’t take teams for granted in the Six Nations’

It was a perfect start for Ireland after a nightmare last match on French soil. 

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