France v Ireland: Five takeaways as Antoine Dupont’s absence proves costly while holders bid for back-to-back Grand Slams

Planet Rugby
France dejected as Ireland celebrate in Six Nations clash.

France dejected as Ireland celebrate in Six Nations clash.

Following Ireland’s 38-17 victory over France in the opening game of this year’s Six Nations, here’s our five takeaways from Friday’s clash in Marseille.

The top line

It was dubbed a Six Nations decider by many and even a Grand Slam decider by some, but we were all about enjoying the moment tonight as two of the best sides in world rugby went toe-to-toe. Granted, Les Bleus were way off that standard, but for Ireland this was a memorable win that gives them a great springboard in 2024.

Andy Farrell said pre-game there were no Rugby World Cup ghosts to banish, and it does feel like it is very much business as usual for the Irish as they look to continue the progress they made for a significant chunk of 2023. The core of the side remains, but it has been given an injection of youth that took their chance.

Hats off to the fresher faces in the form of Jack Crowley, Joe McCarthy and Calvin Nash, who grabbed their opportunity as Ireland put in a statement performance that proved their psyche has not been impacted by that quarter-final loss to New Zealand. Ireland are back – if they were ever away – and look better than ever.

Paul Willemse can have no complaints

The Les Bleus lock was lucky to return to the field after his yellow card remained yellow early in the match, this after he made contact with the head of Ireland prop Andrew Porter. The Irishman required treatment and a subsequent head injury assessment and fortunately returned whilst Willemse was sitting in the bin.

After the France second-row was spared an upgrade to his punishment, with a drop in height saving him, one would have thought he would have kept his powder dry thereafter in Marseille. That wasn’t the case for French fans as Willemse would commit a similar indiscretion on Caelan Doris 20 minutes later, leaving referee Karl Dickson with no alternative but to show him his second yellow card that turned into red and France with a mountain to climb that was ultimately too great.

Ireland’s lock duo for the long-term

The inclusion of McCarthy in the second-row was one of the big talking points of the Ireland team selection, but it was very much form-related due to how he has been tracking at Leinster. McCarthy is proving to be the complete tighthead lock as he boasts incredible power in the set-piece and around the field with his carries, and that was evident on Friday as he gave the Irish go-forward time and again, blending perfectly with the mobile and skillful Tadhg Beirne in the engine room.

McCarthy was rewarded for his efforts as he picked up the official Player of the Match award and it was richly deserved after a showing that put him on the map.

Ireland’s soft underbelly: the scrum

It was their Achilles heel in the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand, and while it wasn’t as costly today as it was in 2023, it is certainly an issue.

Ireland faced probably their biggest challenge in the set-piece in the Six Nations this year, but the memories of the quarter-final were apparent as Porter was pinged for going in at the angle, collapsing and was comfortably outmuscled by Uini Atonio and then Dorian Aldegheri.

Equally, Tadhg Furlong also struggled to contain Cyril Baille and then Reda Wardi. Farrell will be concerned about the performance in the front-row, particularly with the tour to South Africa in July to come. While the props will take most of the heat for the struggles in the scrum, Dan Sheehan must also shoulder some of the blame, so too should the rest of the pack.

It gave France a route back into the game, and while they didn’t make the most of it, other teams might just.

France’s defence fails and lacked Dupont spark

If Shaun Edwards had any hair before kick-off, he would have ripped it all out by half-time as Ireland managed to punch holes through the middle of France’s defence – sacrilege at this level.

It was an uncommon sight for an Edwards-led defence, and while Ireland can take a lot of credit for how effective they were in creating and taking gaps, much was down to sheer laziness, disorganisation and lack of enthusiasm from the French players who looked knackered far too early in the game. Beirne’s score was a clear indication of this as he galloped through a gap created by Jonathan Danty and Peato Mauvaka due to the lack of folding and alignment from the Les Bleus defence.

All in all, the French really looked flat and started the 2024 Six Nations in a similar fashion as they did in 2023, but with a huge void in the number nine jumper. Maxime Lucu is stellar in his own right, but today, France needed their main talisman, Antoine Dupont, to give his side a lift.

Dupont’s multi-footed exits were massively missed as Ireland dominated the kicking duel, something Romain Ntamack’s presence will have aided too, while Lucu and his replacement Nolann Le Garrec just didn’t have that attacking spark France usually get from Dupont to inspire a comeback.

READ MORE: Ireland player ratings: Rookies shine in epic victory over France in Six Nations opener