A battle between the two most recent Grand Slam champions should deliver the perfect start to this year’s Championship with both sides looking to bounce back after World Cup heartbreak.
Ireland entered last year’s global showpiece as the world’s number one side, but slipped to an agonising defeat to New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
And it was a similar story for France, who had lost just once on home soil in four years, but were pipped by a point by eventual champions South Africa at the same stage.
They head to Marseille looking to put all that behind them with both teams led by the same coaches, but under new captaincy – Peter O’Mahony having taken over from the retired Johnny Sexton, while Grégory Alldritt steps up with Antoine Dupont on Sevens duty ahead of the Olympics.
These two sides have each won nine of their last ten games in the Championship, Ireland winning all five a year ago, while handing France their only loss.
In 2022, it was Les Bleus who swept all before them on their way to the Slam, including a win over Ireland in Paris.
Considering that record, both teams will be only too aware of how crucial this game will be in the context of the race for the trophy.
With Antoine Dupont absent from the side as he focuses on Sevens and a bid for an Olympic medal in Paris this summer, there is a new look to this French team.
Maxime Lucu gets the nod in the No.9 jersey, and will link up with Bordeaux colleague Matthieu Jalibert in the half-backs. Fellow Bordeaux backs Damian Penaud – top try-scorer in each of the last two editions of the Championship – and Yoram Moefana start on the wings and will have a big role to play.
There are some changes up front, with Paul Willemse and Paul Gabrillagues back to form a new-look second-row partnership, while François Cros steps into the starting line-up in the absence of the injured Anthony Jelonch.
On the bench, two men could potentially make their debuts. Nolann Le Garrec was an unused substitute a year ago in the opener in Rome, and will hope to get on this time. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Posolo Tuilagi has been drafted in for Romain Taofifenua, who has been ruled out through illness.
Ireland have some key absences of their own, not least the retirement of captain and talisman Johnny Sexton. Jack Crowley will be charged with filling the giant void left by the Guinness Six Nations’ all-time top points scorer.
Elsewhere, Joe McCarthy has been rewarded for his fine provincial form with a start in the second row in place of Leinster teammate James Ryan, while Robbie Henshaw gets the nod at outside centre with Garry Ringrose injured.
Perhaps the most intriguing call is on the wing, with Mack Hansen injured, it is Calvin Nash who will start opposite James Lowe.
WHAT THEY SAID
France head coach Fabien Galthié: “We feel like we have gone for the right balance. This is a game we have been preparing for two months with the coaching staff. We are up against the second-best team in the world, who have won 17 of their last 18 matches. That obstacle is part of the journey and we are aware of the context. That is why we are here, we are a solid team.”
Ireland scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park: “France were the same (as us), they experienced World Cup heartbreak as well. They’ll be keen to get stuck back into things. A massive home game for them in Marseille, a bit of a change-up from Paris.
“So I’m sure they’ll be fired up, but we’re looking forward to it for sure. It’s going to be an unbelievably tough place to go. No doubt it’s going to be a great challenge and one that we’ll look forward to.”
KEY BATTLE – PEATO MAUVAKA V DAN SHEEHAN
Dan Sheehan has overtaken Ronan Kelleher over the last two seasons to establish himself as one of the very best hookers in the world.
Meanwhile, Peato Mauvaka has had to bide his time as the back-up to Julien Marchand at both club and international level. When Marchand was injured early in the opening game of the World Cup, it opened the door for Mauvaka, who has not looked back.
If Sheehan sometimes looks like a winger with his finishing out wide, Mauvaka has all the skills to play inside centre if required.
Both will be judged by their set-piece performances but they add so much more.
France have won three of their last four Guinness Men’s Six Nations matches against Ireland (lost one in 2023), while Ireland have won just two of their last 11 Six Nations matches on French soil.
Both sides were beaten in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup. This ended a run of 17 straight victories for Ireland, while France had won 18 in a row on home soil.
France have scored a try in each of their last 32 matches in the Guinness Men’s Six Nations, the longest run by any nation in the Championship since Italy’s introduction.
Ireland made 696 carries in the 2023 Guinness Men’s Six Nations, more than any other team, recording the most metres carried (4,286) and metres in contact (1,177)
France’s Damian Penaud scored 14 Test tries in 2023, more than any other player, including a Championship-high five tries.
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gaël 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 François Cros, 7 Charles Ollivon, 8 Grégory Alldritt (c)
Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Posolo Tuilagi, 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.