The spotlight is on France and Ireland’s new appearance for the traditional Six Nations kick-off.
The large Ferris wheel at Borély Beach in Marseille continues to operate day and night, year-round, at a cost of €8 for two rotations. Standing at 55m tall, it offers a view of the nearby Stade Vélodrome, just a few hundred meters away. On Thursday afternoon, France and Ireland were preparing to face off again in a match at the stadium.
It has been 3 months and 19 days since the World Cup quarter-finals took place here. Many of the posters promoting the matches are still displayed around town, but it is now time for a new cycle to begin with the opening match of this year’s Six Nations.
Reworded: Last year at this time, France and Ireland held the top two spots in the world rankings and their match was seen as the determining factor for the title. However, a year later, they have been surpassed by South Africa in the rankings and France, now in fourth place, also trails behind New Zealand. However, these rankings do not hold much significance at the moment. South Africa holds the Webb Ellis Cup, which is ultimately what matters. This shift in rankings reflects the harsh reality that while both teams played well leading up to the World Cup, they fell short in the crucial knockout rounds.
On Friday night, then, offers a first glimpse of how they have handled that setback, the changes they have made to the way they want to play and, though neither side will admit it, the opportunity, too, to exorcise some of the lingering disappointment they must feel.
France spent eight years building towards the World Cup. “We’ll be scarred for life, and that’s part of our journey,” said their head coach Fabien Galthié, when, last November, he finally spoke out. “We’ve all been through a kind of introspection, first personally and then collectively.”
Ireland has also been examining their mistakes. According to their head coach, Andy Farrell, he began contemplating it immediately after the game ended. Peter O’Mahony adds, “We are not the type to avoid acknowledging our performance and using it as a lesson.”
During every coffee break in the past few months, he has mentioned this topic. It’s no surprise that he wants to move on from it. He explains, “We are not seeking validation for what occurred. This is not about correcting mistakes, but rather about preparing for tomorrow’s Test match.”
O’Mahony is captain, one of a handful of changes to the teams. He is leading a side with a rookie fly-half, 24-year-old Jack Crowley, lock Joe McCarthy and wing, Calvin Nash, but otherwise is pretty gnarly and familiar. The most obvious difference is who they are missing. Ireland have won seven Tests out of 11 against France in the past decade and Johnny Sexton started every one of the victories. He missed two games, and Ireland lost both.
Sexton was not only a strong leader and skilled at goalkicking, but also a crucial player in Ireland’s offensive strategy. It remains uncertain if the team can function as effectively without him.
O’Mahony, who knows Crowley from way back, has faith in him. “I remember him playing for Con and getting reports he was the real deal, fast forward a few years and here we are,” he says.
“He has gained a significant amount of knowledge from Johnny, Joey Carberry, and Ross Byrne. He is highly dedicated to observing and learning the game, spending countless hours analyzing and working out in the gym. He still has room for improvement, but no one knows that better than him.”
France is without their captain and key player Antoine Dupont, who is taking a break from Test rugby to compete in rugby sevens before the upcoming Olympics. Their regular fly-half, Romain Ntamack, is also unavailable due to injury. However, they have suitable replacements in Matthieu Jalibert and Maxime Lucu, who both play for Bordeaux. Grégory Alldritt has been named as the new captain. The only unexpected choice in their lineup is Yoram Moefana, who typically plays as a centre, playing as a wing instead of the talented young Louis Bielle-Biarrey.
Bielle-Biarrey struggled with catching the high ball during the game against the Springboks, leading to speculation that this is the reason why he is not starting. He will be joined on the bench by the agile scrum-half Nolann le Garrec and powerful lock Posolo Tuilagi, who was added to the team as a replacement for Romain Taofifénua.
Manu Tuilagi’s nephew, Tuilagi, joined the team as a trainee two weeks ago after the federation confirmed his eligibility. He quickly earned a spot in the match-day 23. Despite being only 19 years old, his towering height of 6ft 4in and weight of nearly 24st may deceive you.
According to Galthié, France is a youthful team that is still improving. The opportunity to play in Marseille will also bring a sense of renewal, as they can escape the memories of the Stade de France, which is currently being prepared for the Olympics.
The supporters in Paris may be unpredictable, but the audience here is clearly passionate. The upcoming match will be intense and both teams are determined to come out on top.