The last two winners of this title met on opening night in front of a packed crowd, and tries from Jamison Gibson-Park, Tadhg Beirne, Calvin Nash and Dan Sheehan ensured that it was Ireland who came away with maximum points.
France paid the price for their indiscipline, losing Paul Willemse to a red card for two yellows in the first half. But Ireland’s dominance was not simply by virtue of having an extra man, they were able to employ the game that had seen them reach the summit of the world standings last year and pick their moments against the French defence.
Les Bleus kept battling, even with 14, scoring tries through Damian Penaud and Paul Gabrillagues but they were forced into too many mistakes against a side who needed no second invitation to strike.
It was fitting that Ireland, convincing winners, got the final score. As with Sheehan previously, their rolling maul allowed Ronan Kelleher to slot the fifth and final try that sealed a record win over Les Bleus in France. This game pitted the two sides who felt perhaps the greatest disappointment at the World Cup, both beaten in heart-breaking quarter-finals.
Ireland, without now retired captain Johnny Sexton, look to have digested that disappointment the better, with Les Bleus struggling for answers in the absence of their own captain, Antoine Dupont – who is on Sevens duty as he bids for an Olympic medal this summer.
IRELAND START STRONGLY
France could have struck first, Matthieu Jalibert dancing through a couple of tackles to open Ireland up, but Gaël Fickou gave his pass to Penaud a fraction early and Hugo Keenan made the important tackle.
Instead, it was Ireland who took the lead, Jack Crowley – the man tasked with replacing Sexton – knocking over a penalty on seven minutes after France had infringed while keeping Ireland’s first attack at bay.
Les Bleus then lost Willemse to a yellow card, the second row with a dangerous clearout on Andrew Porter.
In his absence, Ireland struck, Bundee Aki maintaining the form he showed at the end of last year as he slipped through two tackles before putting Gibson-Park away.
Crowley converted to make it 10-0 and they almost got in again after a scrum on the 22, held up over the line with France on the ropes.
A missed penalty from Crowley gave France some respite, and they used their dominant scrum to get on the board with a long-range Thomas Ramos penalty, the visitors 10-3 up after 26 minutes.
Ireland’s response was immediate, again going through the phases and a lovely delayed ball from Crowley allowed Beirne to slip past Jonathan Danty and under the posts.
MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB FOR LES BLEUS
France were in trouble at 17-3, and that was compounded when Willemse caught Caelan Doris high from the restart, receiving a second yellow, which was later upgraded to red.
Despite being down to 14, France managed to sustain some pressure before half-time, again their scrum the foundation. While Beirne stole one lineout five metres out, Ireland could not hold out indefinitely, Jalibert putting Penaud in for his 36th try for his country – just two behind record-holder Serge Blanco.
Ramos converted from the touchline and it was 17-10 at the break. He had a chance to cut the deficit further early in the second half, but pushed a long-range penalty attempt wide.
Instead, it was Ireland who struck once more. A turnover penalty, indicative of their dominance in the breakdown battle, set up the territory. From there, they worked the space and a clever offload off the deck from Robbie Henshaw was shifted wide by Doris for Nash’s first Test try. Crowley slotted the touchline conversion to a huge roar from the visiting crowd.
France could have folded, but they battled back. Their rolling maul was making inroads, and after one was dragged down just short of the line, Gabrillagues was able to squeeze the ball over, with Peter O’Mahony – the new Ireland skipper – sent to the sin-bin for the initial infringement.
Ramos converted to bring it back to within seven points, with France throwing Posolo Tuilagi, their 19-year-old debutant into the fray in a bid to continue the comeback.
IRELAND PULL CLEAR
He impressed but it was Ireland who finished the stronger – their extra man understandably telling in the closing stages.
Sheehan got over from a rolling maul on the hour to secure the bonus point, and his replacement Kelleher did the same with minutes remaining to wrap up an emphatic success.