Ireland underlined their status as the world’s number one team as they overwhelmed defending champions France 32-19 on Saturday in a fantastic Six Nations match that absolutely lived up to its billing, delivering wonderful tries and relentless quality.
It was the first time in Five and Six Nations history that the world’s two top-ranked teams had gone head to head but Ireland looked superior for most of the match as they ended France’s 14-game unbeaten run and also ended the visitors’ three-game winning run against Ireland.
Anyone doubting Ireland’s claim to be the best team in the world, on the back of their series win in New Zealand last year, will struggle to make an argument after yet another performance that showed their wonderful mix of attacking speed and intensity and utterly committed and organised defence.
“It was a huge game and right to be billed that way,” said Ireland coach Andy Farrell. “We can be unbelievably proud of it. The fight we showed was astonishing at times.
“The spirit was great, we played some good stuff in the first half and probably should have had some more points. That’s not being greedy as we got a bonus point. France are a world class side who are so dangerous but playing here we expect to go out and perform and win.”
Ireland were on the board first with a cleverly made try for fullback Hugo Keenan but the visitors hit back in classic French style. After a pass went to ground in their own 22, France looked in danger but regathered and surged forward in a thrilling counter-attack that ended with Damian Penaud scoring.
Ireland regained the lead with an extraordinary finish by James Lowe. Knowing he was about to be tackled by Penaud, the winger dived up and over, simultaneously reaching out one-handed to somehow squeeze the ball just inside the line.
France prop Uini Atonio was then sinbinned, and was somewhat lucky to escape a red for a high hit, and Ireland took immediate advantage as the pack forced prop Andrew Porter, earning his 50th cap, over the line.
Ireland looked set for a fourth with Mack Hansen almost at the line only for scrumhalf Antoine Dupont to show incredible strength to wrestle him away.
It was typical of France’s committed defence and they stayed in touch with three Thomas Ramos penalties, though Johnny Sexton popped one over to make it 22-16 after one of the best 40 minutes the competition has seen for years.
A penalty for replacement flyhalf Ross Byrne and a drop goal by Ramos made it 25-19 with 20 minutes remaining but though France had more possession, they struggled to create scoring opportunities against the superbly-drilled Irish defence.
Ireland then pushed again, with a relentless series of attacks that ended after 19 phases with man of the match Number Eight Caelan Doris providing a brilliant offload for Garry Ringrose to go over for the bonus-point earning fourth try.
France coach Fabien Galthie said: “We were overwhelmed in important moments. We were close for a long time but could not bridge that gap and the Irish managed to keep us in our half.
“We have to admit that the best team won and this game will give us a lot to analyse and keep us ambitious.”
Ireland will expect to make it three out of three when they visit Italy in two weeks, while France host Scotland.