- By Matt Gault
- BBC Sport NI in Marseille
2024 Six Nations – France v Ireland
Date: Friday, 2 February Location: Stade Velodrome, Marseille Start: 20:00 GMT
Access: Listen on BBC Sound, BBC Radio 5 Live & BBC Radio Ulster; the latest updates, reports, performances & highlights on the BBC Sport website & programme.
Ireland and France may have avoided each other at the Rugby World Cup, but Friday’s meeting promises to mark another exciting chapter in this tough competition and set up this year’s Six Nations in a surprising manner.
In the last few years, this trend has not changed. It has been the loudest and most captivating Six Nations: full of big hits, roars and scores of goals.
In 2022, France won the big Stade de France battle to dominate the competition.
They then ended the tournament with a Grand Slam, but 12 months passed when Ireland returned the favor in the Dublin classic en route to a home sweep.
But a lot has happened since these blue and green juggernauts collided.
Both still have the pain of having their World Cup dreams dashed. After defeating group winners South Africa, Ireland fell to the All Blacks in a heartbreaking quarterfinal.
The Frenchman was sent off 24 hours later, having been knocked out by the Springboks in the quarter-finals for the longest time. No team has ever played. The journey here did not require deep meditation.
There are changes to key personnel, too. While Ireland captain Johnny Sexton’s World Cup retirement has already been signed, French captain Antoine Dupont’s decision to skip the Six Nations and chase his Olympic dreams in the Sevens code has rocked his country.
While the move robs two of the most talked-about figures, it paves the way for new stars to emerge and new stories to be written at the Stade Velodrome on Friday.
Back to Irish business
Although another disappointing World Cup exit and the loss of one of their greatest players has weighed heavily, Ireland have been keen to avoid talk of “new starts” and “new seasons”.
For them, it’s back to business as they go in search of back-to-back Grand Slams, which would be their first in the Six Nations era.
General manager Andy Farrell does not see this year as the beginning of four years, but to continue the journey that has tested his charges in every way since he took charge in 2019.
Farrell, who will miss next year’s tournament to oversee the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, is fielding a familiar line-up, with Joe McCarthy and Calvin Nash the only Six Nations starters.
It’s a strong team, too. Although Garry Ringrose’s injury was a concern, Robbie Henshaw is available to take his place and while McCarthy may only be 22, he has featured in the World Cup and put up some exceptional numbers for Leinster in recent months.
Sexton’s succession plan has two aspects. But while new captain Peter O’Mahony is tall enough not to be swayed by the size of the French side, there is no escaping the feeling that this is a big night for Jack Crowley.
Consider how some of Ireland’s greats have used the French game to put their names in lights. Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in 2000, Sexton’s drop-goal in 2018. Friday could be Crowley’s turn to come on French soil.
Although they have never played in Marseille before, this Irish team knows how to win and realize the intensity of this big night.
Likewise, France. Despite being shorn of the respectable talent of Dupont and the treachery of Romain Ntamack who was injured from out-half, Fabien Galthie’s side still pack a big punch and are considered by many to be the favourites.
Bordeaux’s Maxime Lucu also deputizes for Dupont after completing the role at the World Cup when Dupont was injured, while defenders Thomas Ramos, Mathieu Jalibert and Yoram Moefana have all been in good form for their clubs this season.
And with back-rower Gregory Alldritt taking over the captaincy and goal-scoring machine Damian Penaud – who has scored 13 goals in his last eight appearances for France – starting, France are looking good.
These two powerhouses have given us many Six Nations games over the years. The games may be different but Friday’s block is sure to bring us back.
It’s not fair to call this a race decider. However, it is very similar to many parts, more parts and which can send a signal to other opponents.
Whether the sign is blue or green remains to be seen, but it looks like the latest Six Nations showdown is about to get off to a great start.