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Six Nations: Ireland lay down a marker on magic night in Marseille

Ireland allayed fears of any potential post-World Cup hangover as they blasted the Six Nations open with Friday's record 38-17 victory against France.

Les Bleus were expected to fly out of the blocks, especially after an incredible pre-match rendition of La Marseillaise. However, a stirring national anthem was almost as good as it got for the hosts, who were outclassed across the field.

The game was built as a contest between two wounded sides potentially suffering from World Cup heartache. On Friday's evidence, France are still pining, while Ireland have moved on to bigger and better things.

After recording their biggest-ever away victory over France, Andy Farrell's reigning Six Nations champions are just 1/5 retain their title and 4/6 to make history by becoming the first team to win back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations.

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Magic in Marseille

The Stade Velodrome has previously been a fortress for French rugby but even the partisan crowd could do little to rescue a lacklustre Les Bleus side, with questions already being asked about coach Fabien Galthie's future.

First-half tries from Jamison Gibson-Park and Tadhg Beirne put Ireland in the ascendency, but France lock Paul Willemse did his best to help them, being yellowed for a high shot on Andrew Porter after seven minutes.

Willemse should have learned his lesson, but he didn't. Referee Karl Dickson brandished a red card for a similarly careless shot on Caelan Doris to leave France floundering with just 14 men for the remaining 50 minutes.

That sparked Les Bleus into life; Damian Penaud became his country's leading Six Nations try scorer in finishing off a smart move. He is 5/2 to finish the tournament as the leading scorer for the third straight year and his score sent the French in trailing 17-10 at the break.

An omen, perhaps? The last time Ireland led France at the break was in 2018, and also finished with an away victory.

Calvin Nash's early score in the second half put the visitors 14 points ahead, but that lead was reduced when Paul Gabrillagues rumbled over in a phase that saw visiting captain Peter O'Mahony yellow carded.

Panic could have set in but Ireland kept their cool, with further scores from hookers Dan Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher sending them on their way to a record victory.

Crowley and McCarthy shine

The questions over Johnny Sexton's successor has been a dilemma that Irish rugby has almost failed to tackle over the last decade. 

Sexton's injuries before his retirement last year had seen his country turn to Joey Carbery, Jack Carty, Ross Byrne and plenty of others in search of a suitable heir but after emerging over the last year, Farrell's decision to place his faith in Jack Crowley paid off.

The Munster playmaker has been bedded in at both provincial and international level but looked born for the shirt as he controlled proceedings in Marseille. 

The 24-year-old displayed his full skillset and admirable temperament by regaining his composure after a missed first-half penalty, nailing more challenging kicks from out wide and also using those around him, namely left wing James Lowe, to help him clear Ireland's lines when under pressure.

However, the out-half was aided by a dominant pack, epitomised by Joe McCarthy's gargantuan effort in the second row.

Just 22 but close to 20 stone and still incredibly mobile, the New York-born Leinster lock looks more like he lives in Durban than Dublin, monstering opponents in both defence and attack.

A lack of physicality against the big boys has plagued Ireland in recent years. However, McCarthy's improvement and effectiveness on both sides of the ball suggests they now have an Eben Etzebeth-style enforcer to call upon as they target a first World Cup victory, available at 5/1, at the 2027 tournament.

Differing moods ahead of contrasting tasks

France, now 20/1 to win the Six Nations, may point to a lack of preparation for Friday's result, whereas Ireland took their 35-man squad to the Algarve.

Conceding five tries will not have gone down well with defence coach Shaun Edwards, while Les Bleus unravelled in attack, with scrum-half Maxime Lucu failing to fill in for the absent Antoine Dupont.

The 2022 Grand Slam winners next head to Murrayfield to face Scotland and the sole consolation might be that they cannot play worse. 

Even setting Willemse aside, their discipline around the field was sub-par, as they failed to get the requisite bodies to rucks and fell apart in defence, while centre Jonathan Danty's dart out of the line saw him looking to hit his man, rather than field the ball, which opened the gap for Beirne's try.

Italy are next up for Ireland and it will be interesting to see how Farrell approaches the game. He used last year's trip to Rome to rotate but with this game coming so soon in the tournament, he could go big with his selection to maintain momentum going into the first break week before welcoming Wales to Dublin on 24th February.

Ireland's win will be rightly lauded but they still have areas to improve. Porter was penalised for not driving straight and struggling to hold up his opposite number and, as was the case at the World Cup, his scrummaging could become an issue with referees. 

They also need to work on their line-out, although Italy and Wales are good opponents to practice against before the Irish head to Twickenham on the penultimate weekend.

Even so, after prematurely crashing out of the World Cup, Ireland responded perfectly, and, in Crowley and McCarthy, they have two players ready to carry their country through to Australia in 2027.

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