France duly completed a bonus point win over Italy in Paris yesterday to set up a mouth-watering top-of-the-table clash with Ireland at the Stade de France next Saturday.
Italy put it up to France and took the lead through a try by 19-year-old debutant Tommaso Menoncello, the youngest try scorer in the championship since 1967. However, France eventually pulled through to win 37-10 thanks to a hat-trick by Gabin Villière, the first by a French player in the championship since 2008.
The French team manager Raphael Ibanez, who communicated with Fabien Galthie throughout due to the head coach testing positive for Covid, admitted: "We will need to step up in every department. I think discipline will be the key because we made a few mistakes and we need to address that with the boys. Ireland are not fourth in the world ranking for nothing. They deserve it and the game they played yesterday [Saturday] was brilliant."
Ireland have rarely embarked upon a trek to Paris in better nick. Their potent, highly skilled and mean defence has earned nine successive wins, albeit the last seven have been at home and thus Les Bleus in Paris will clearly be the stiffest test since Ireland last lost, in an empty Aviva Stadium exactly a year ago.
"It certainly is because it's the next game and we know how difficult it is to go to Paris anyway," said Andy Farrell grateful to "get up and running."after a comprehensive 29-7 win over Wales.
“You are always hungry to get off to a good start and we have managed to do that. We will lick our wounds tonight and we will prepare properly tomorrow for the French test and there is no doubt about it. It is the test of all tests isn’t it, at this moment in time.
“Everyone knows how well they are playing. We will get to sit back and watch them play tomorrow so hopefully that will help us as well.”
Ireland also have unpleasant memories of their last trip to Paris, when losing 35-27 and with that their chances of the title in the rearranged Six Nations finale in October 2020.
"Well, I suppose the great test for this group is we've learned a lot of lessons about ourselves in Paris on that night," said Farrell. "It was a big game when we could have got across the line for the Six Nations and we didn't deliver on the big stage. I feel the group has grown since then. I suppose the proof will be in the pudding."
To win with a bonus point while knowing they could have been more accurate and ruthless and coming through unscathed leaves Farrell's squad in a good place. Andrew Conway was withdrawn just past the hour and his typically industrious, two-try performance was even more meritorious considering he was unwell.
"Andrew Conway had a sickness and he wasn't feeling well for most of the day. He managed to score his tries and then came off. So he is fine. The rest have a full bill of health really. Iain Henderson is fit and ready to go and so is Robbie Henshaw, so we are in good health I think."
It would be no surprise to see the latter two Lions restored to the match-day ‘23’, but equally it’s hard to see how they are anyone else can force themselves into a fairly settled starting XV.
As was the case in the win over New Zealand, Bundee Aki had another hugely productive outing. Whether using his strength and footwork to carry hard and straight, deftly pull the ball back for Johnny Sexton's trademark wrap or put pace on the ball, Aki was a key figure in Ireland's attack.
He had 18 carries and made 102 metres, mostly in traffic and, giving the lie to the notion that he is not a good distributor, passed the ball 15 times. There was a try, his seventh for Ireland, and a try-scoring assist for the bonus-point finish by the excellent Garry Ringrose.
Tadhg Beirne was left slamming the ground in frustration after coughing up the intercept for Taine Basham's late consolation score but otherwise he was excellent. Beirne epitomises the skill with which forwards and backs interlink, and after Aki had the second most carries (14), with seven passes and one huge break, while he was Ireland's main lineout option.
Either way, with Henderson and Henshaw back in the mix, Farrell will have some difficult selection calls this week.
“We will see. You guys know as well as us that it’s going to take a whole squad over the course the Six Nations to win this competition. It’s very tough and demanding, not just because of the nature of the games but the length of the competition as well and the competition for places in the squad is always going to be taxing on the players so the conversations are always difficult. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a British and Irish Lion or a guy that’s done it with his first cap, they are always difficult.”
Ireland play a high-risk if high-reward attacking game with Sexton and others usually flat to the gain line, ie in the opposition defence rather than before it.
“It isn’t just Johnny, it isn’t just the first receiver, it’s everyone. We are trying to make sure that we are as connected as we possibly can be in attack and certainly in defence as well.
“We’re not just sending our forwards into a brick wall, we’re making sure that they run the right lines as well at the back and we’re nicely connected and therefore our support play has got to be better because of that as well.”
Conditions have been poor at all three games on the opening weekend and whether or not that's a factor in Paris next Saturday evening it will be fascinating to see how Ireland's attacking game fares against the French outside-in defence honed by Shaun Edwards.
In every sense, this looks like the ultimate test in this championship for this Irish team.