Rugby

Ireland move into pole position for Six Nations title with victory in France

Jamison Gibson-Park, Tadhg Beirne, Calvin Nash, Dan Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher went over for tries.

Calvin Nash went over for Ireland’s third try
Calvin Nash went over for Ireland's third try Calvin Nash went over for Ireland’s third try (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Ireland ruthlessly capitalised on the absence of Antonie Dupont to launch their Guinness Six Nations title defence with a stunning 38-17 bonus-point demolition of 14-man France.

Both sides came into a mouth-watering tournament curtain-raiser in Marseille on the back of agonising World Cup quarter-finals exits.

Tries from Jamison Gibson-Park, Tadhg Beirne, Calvin Nash, Dan Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher ensured it was the reigning Grand Slam champions who stylishly bounced back at the first attempt to propel themselves into pole position for further championship glory.

France’s quest for victory at a largely subdued Stade Velodrome was damaged by the indiscipline of lock Paul Willemse, who was sent off in the 32nd minute following a high hit on Caelan Doris having previously been sin-binned for a similar challenge on Andrew Porter.

Scores from Damian Penaud and Paul Gabrillagues and seven points from the boot of Thomas Ramos gave the pre-tournament favourites hope.

But Ireland, aided by 13 points from Jack Crowley on his first Six Nations start, deservedly romped to another statement victory of the Andy Farrell era.

Jamison Gibson-Park (right) scored the first try
Jamison Gibson-Park (right) scored the first try Jamison Gibson-Park (right) scored the first try (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The two teams came into a blockbuster showdown seeking to ease disappointment at falling short in their efforts to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in the autumn and having each lost influential captains.

Dupont’s temporary unavailability, as he focuses on his country’s sevens squad for this year’s Paris Olympics, afforded a start to scrum-half Maxime Lucu, while Crowley was given a chance to stake his claim as long-term fly-half successor to the retired Johnny Sexton.

Farrell’s men began in the ascendancy and led through an early Crowley penalty before Willemse was ordered off for ploughing into prop Porter.

Paul Willemse was sent off for two yellow cards
Paul Willemse was sent off for two yellow cards Paul Willemse was sent off for two yellow cards (Andrew Matthews/PA)

A relieved Willemse had just learnt his yellow card would not be upgraded to red on review when Gibson-Park latched on to a fine Bundee Aki offload to ensure Ireland capitalised on their temporary numerical advantage.

Ramos’ penalty briefly improved the mood in the stands before Beirne collected Crowley’s pass to easily beat Jonathan Danty and dive over under the posts at the end of sustained Irish pressure.

Willemse’s reprieve proved only to be fleeting as he was dismissed eight minutes before the break following another dangerous challenge, this time on Doris.

Ireland were in complete control but head coach Farrell would have been frustrated to only hold a 17-10 half-time lead after Penaud, who moments early was repelled by a superb Hugo Keenan tackle, produced a spectacular finish to Matthieu Jalibert’s pass.

Dan Sheehan powered over for the bonus-point try
Dan Sheehan powered over for the bonus-point try Dan Sheehan powered over for the bonus-point try (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The visitors set aside the setback to restore their 14-point advantage six minutes after the restart as Munster wing Nash marked his first Test start with a memorable maiden try after being freed by Doris.

Deprived of Dupont, France were largely rudderless in attack.

But Fabien Galthie’s side again cut the deficit when Gabrillagues’ score was awarded following a lengthy review, an incident compounded from an Irish perspective by new captain Peter O’Mahony being sin-binned for bringing down the maul.

Ireland players celebrate after Ronan Kelleher (blocked) scores
France v Ireland – Guinness Six Nations – Orange Velodrome Ireland players celebrate after Ronan Kelleher (blocked) scores (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Ireland once more earned breathing space 18 minutes from time when Sheehan peeled off a rolling maul to finish his own line-out.

The staggeringly-simple score secured a merited bonus point for the dominant visitors and proved to be the fatal blow to French resistance.

Yet there was more punishment to come for the ragged hosts as replacement hooker Kelleher bulldozed over to cap a fine Ireland performance and ramp up pressure on Les Bleus head coach Galthie.