Slammers France and Ireland clash in seismic opener

Slammers France and Ireland clash in seismic opener


Preview: France vs Ireland (Friday, 8pm)

The highly anticipated 2024 Six Nations gets underway as the two tournament favourites, France and Ireland, clash in Marseille on Friday night at 8pm. 

This tournament opener is poised to be a pivotal game, setting the tone for the competition and potentially determining the eventual winner.

Both teams experienced heartbreak in the 2023 World Cup, with hosts France falling to eventual champions South Africa in the quarter-finals, and Ireland’s 17-match winning streak halted by New Zealand at the same stage.

Despite these narrow defeats to Southern Hemisphere powerhouses, the achievements of both sides in previous years, including France’s Grand Slam in 2022 and Ireland’s in 2023, have been remarkable.

Due to the ongoing renovations at the Stade de France in preparation for the Paris 2024 Olympics, France will play their three home games in Marseilles, Lille, and Lyon, and will be without their talismanic captain, Antoine Dupont, who is preparing to represent France 7s at the games.

Despite this setback, head coach Fabien Galthie has assembled a stellar squad and names an impressive lineup for the tournament opener.

Uini Atonio reversed his decision to retire from test rugby after the World Cup and the 145kg tighthead prop packs down alongside the rampaging hooker Peato Mauvaka and the reliable loosehead Cyril Baile, both of whom scored in France’s agonising World Cup quarter-final defeat. 

After missing out on the World Cup, Paul Willemse and Paul Gabrillagues return in the second-row, and in the absence of the injured Anthony Jelonch, Francois Cros joins the world-class Charles Ollivon and captain Gregory Alldritt in a formidable back-row.

With Dupont absent, Maxime Lucu steps in at scrum-half, forming a promising halfback partnership with Bordeaux teammate Matthieu Jalibert. The powerful Jonathan Danty and skillful Gael Fickou partner in midfield, while Bordeaux wingers Damian Penaud and Yoram Moefana, along with full-back Thomas Ramos who is one of the best goalkickers in the world, complete a potent attacking force.

On the bench, France opt for a 6-2 split, including impactful options like 6’8 and 21 stone lock Romain Taofifenua. France combine a powerful pack that can dominate the collisions, set piece and breakdown, with a skilful back-line capable of carving Ireland’s defence apart.

Ireland enter a new era after Jonny Sexton’s retirement, under the leadership of Peter O’Mahony, but field the experienced all-Leinster front-row of Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, and Tadhg Furlong.

Iain Henderson is left out of the 23, meaning there is no Ulster representation in Ireland’s squad, as Leinster lock Joe McCarthy packs down in the second-row alongside Tadhg Beirne, with James Ryan on the bench. O’Mahony starts alongside Josh Van Der Flier and Caelen Doris in an experienced back-row, with Jack Conan on the bench.

Jamison Gibson-Park starts at scrum-half, with Jack Crawley at fly-half looking for an assured performance to stake his credentials as Sexton’s successor, and Robbie Henshaw replaces the injured Garry Ringrose at outside centre to partner the powerful Bundee Aki.

Winger Calvin Nash’s strong recent form for Munster earns him a first start for Ireland with Mack Hanson ruled out with injury, while the back three is completed by the world-class James Lowe and Hugo Keenan.

Coach Andy Farrell also chooses a 6-2 split on the bench, with impact players like Cian Healy and Jack Conan ready to make a difference in what is set to be a bruising encounter.

In the past 20 months, Ireland have reached Number One in the World, won a series in New Zealand for the first-time and romped to a Grand Slam in 2023. They will be hoping for to build on their successes, and have a team in a rich vein of form with ten of their starters representing Leinster who sit top of The URC and won all of their Champions Cup pool-stage games.

France also have players in red-hot form for their club sides with Bordeaux and Toulouse producing impressive displays in The Champions Cup. France have won 21 of their last 23 competitive fixtures playing a breathtaking brand of rugby. Les Bleus are capable of scoring tries from anywhere on the pitch, and their running rugby can be unstoppable.

France are seeking to make amends for their World Cup heartbreak with a ‘Grand Chelem’. However, Ireland may well present their stiffest challenge, Andy Farrell’s side are courageous, well organised and skilful, and are seeking to retain their Six Nations’ crown.

A titanic clash awaits fans at the Stade Velodrome and around the world.

Written by Matthew Luddington

James Lowe’s brilliant – but controversial – score was crucial as Ireland battled past France in a thilling game last year (Picture: Getty Images)

France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Yoram Moefana, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Maxime Lucu; 1 Cyril Baille, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 3 Uini Atonio, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 5 Paul Willemse, 6 Francois Cros, 7 Charles Ollivon, 8 Gregory Alldritt (c).

Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Cameron Woki, 21 Paul Boudehent, 22 Nolann Le Garrec, 23 Louis Bielle-Biarrey.

Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Calvin Nash, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Jack Crowley, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park; 1 Andrew Porter, 2 Dan Sheehan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Joe McCarthy, 5 Tadhg Beirne, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Caelan Doris.

Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 James Ryan, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Jack Conan, 22 Conor Murray, 23 Ciaran Frawley.

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