Ireland laid down a marker with a bonus-point success over Grand Slam champions France to underline their status as contenders for the 2023 Guinness Six Nations.
Taking on the only team that they had not yet beaten under Andy Farrell, Ireland ran in four tries, Garry Ringrose’s score eight minutes from time bringing up the bonus point while ending the French challenge once and for all.
In the first-ever meeting of the world’s top two sides in the Championship, this was a match that lived up to the billing and much more.
Since last summer’s series victory in New Zealand, Ireland have officially been top of the world rankings, a status they have embraced under Farrell.
This win over France may have been their most complete performance yet. Les Bleus have had the edge in meetings between the sides since the arrival of Fabien Galthié, including a 15-13 win in Dublin two years ago.
Last year’s champions came into the game on a 14-game winning streak, and despite a scare in Rome, provided formidable opposition.
And yet Ireland were able to not only dispatch them, but claim five points as well, even on a day when they were not hugely efficient when they got into the red zone.
Their opening try was a throwback to the Joe Schmidt era, Finlay Bealham with the perfectly-disguised inside ball for Hugo Keenan just as the French defence was rushing wide to the arcing outsider runners.
For all the individual moments, the most impressive part of Ireland’s success in Farrell’s eyes, was the way that they stood up and proved themselves in the biggest game.
“The character (won it for us) more than anything. We talk about the big picture stuff, the fight, the want to cover each other’s back,” Farrell said.
“To show the togetherness, the spirit that we know we’ve got and show it to everyone else in world rugby was there to be seen.”
A hallmark of this France team, beyond the spectacular skill and at times dazzling interplay, has been the pragmatism in where they play.
Of course there are exceptions. We can all remember Paul Willemse’s try at BT Murrayfield last year, started from a break by Antoine Dupont from his own 22, while Romain Ntamack’s counter from his own in-goal area against New Zealand in 2021 will go down in French history along with the greatest moments of ‘French flair’.
However, they also kick the ball more than almost any team, and very rarely take any chances in their own territory.
It was therefore a surprise to see them regularly trying to trouble the Ireland defence from inside their own half, and sometimes even further back.
Damian Penaud’s try showed that it can work, and even in defeat, might have been the standout moment of the game. But Les Bleus will also look at their first half in particular, and how they gave up possession multiple times when trying to run from their own half.
While Galthié was not critical of the players, he admitted it was not a pre-planned tactic, and that it had not worked for the team.
He said: “Overall we were good but in the area around the middle of the park, we overplayed. We conceded points and wasted energy. It was the turnovers in the middle of the park that hurt us.
“We left a lot of energy out there in the first half. That counts at the end of the game.”
Caelan Doris kicked off the Guinness Six Nations with a try after barely two minutes, and he has not looked back.
Against France, with a standout No.8 of their own in Grégory Alldritt, Doris was once again exceptional, on his way to Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match honours.
His ability to trouble Antoine Dupont at the breakdown, even on a day when the French skipper was brilliant, was part of why France felt like they could not clear their lines from their own half and ended up overplaying.
He is also incredible at reading the game, spotting when there might be a gap around the French fringe defence and punishing it.
Doris’ pick and go in the lead-up to the decisive fourth try was probably the most important moment in that attack, with France constantly on the back foot thereafter. He then had two more involvements including the final pass to Ringrose, remarkable work-rate with more than 70 minutes in the legs.
It is hard to think of a player who has become more integral to a side that Ireland skipper and fly-half Johnny Sexton.
He was brilliant in the first half, even showing off pace that few would have expected for a player closer to 40 than 30.
But when he was forced off with half an hour remaining with a groin injury, there must have been some concerns about the impact his absence would have.
While Ireland were leading 22-16, France seemed to have momentum on their side, with wingers Damian Penaud and Ethan Dumortier causing havoc.
Instead, Ross Byrne, so impressive in a short cameo against Australia in the autumn, stepped up and was able to manage the game and help swing the momentum.
He was helped by a couple of crucial kicks from James Lowe and Hugo Keenan, his 50:22 was a real turning point. Stuart McCloskey also did his bit with a turnover on his own line as France looked ready to pounce.
However, Byrne’s calming influence was vital, and he almost looked like Sexton at times as he slotted in at fly-half as he has done so often for Leinster.
That is not to say that the Ireland skipper is surplus to requirements, but concerns over a dependency on him may have been allayed by this display.
You have to go all the way back to the summer of 2021 for the last time France came out on the wrong side of a game of rugby.
That encounter in Australia came with a largely second-string squad. Their last defeat with all their big guns available prior to Saturday? At home to Scotland in Paris in their rearranged 2021 Guinness Six Nations clash.
So in some ways, it is fitting that Gregor Townsend’s Scotland are next on the agenda for Les Bleus as they try to bounce back from this loss.
Flying high after back-to-back wins to open the Guinness Six Nations for the first time since 1996, Scotland will take some stopping.
They are team who have troubled France over the past few years, with two wins apiece in four meetings under Galthié.
The French coach was typically philosophical after this loss, but will expect a response from his charges.
Galthié said: “It was a defeat. It’s been two years since we had lost, we had won 14 in a row. We have to learn to accept defeat. We don’t really enjoy it in the team. It’s not a friend. But we’ll have to live with it. We learn a lot from wins but also a lot from defeats.”
He was adamant that their mindset and momentum will not stall because of this loss. A clash with an in-form Scotland at the Stade de France will be the chance to prove it.