For a decade, the biggest question was how could Ireland cope without Johnny Sexton? The highest points-scorer in Guinness Men’s Six Nations history has written his name into Irish rugby folklore over the past decade and a half, before calling time on his playing career after the World Cup last year.
You have to go all the way back to 2000 and Brian O’Driscoll’s famous hat-trick for the last time that Ireland beat Les Bleus in France without Sexton – until Friday night.
Jack Crowley was tasked with the seemingly impossible job of replacing Sexton and bar a missed first-half penalty, he more than held his own.
But what will be more pleasing from an Irish perspective is that Ireland did not need Crowley to be Sexton. This 38-17 success was a reflection of a team that is completely sure of itself, with leaders all over the park.
Bundee Aki and Tadhg Beirne remain two of the most unique and most influential players in the game and were able to provide the support to Crowley and Six Nations debutant Joe McCarthy respectively – the latter making such an impression that he earned Guinness Player of the Match honours.
Andy Farrell has turned this Ireland team into a juggernaut, and he summed up how the strength of established players has been so crucial in helping newcomers thrive.
He said: “It's not something that surprises us as a group because these lads have been involved in and around the group for a number of years. Some have been waiting for a chance and playing so well that you can't keep them out.
“The best thing about this team at the moment is that. It's a team. It doesn't matter if you are Pete (O’Mahony), touching 42 or 43, or Joe McCarthy, who is a young buck trying to make his way, everyone is pulling in the same direction.
“The young boys tend to feel comfortable in their own skin in the environment.” Even down to 14 men, France fought back to get within a score on two separate occasions – the second of those coming with Ireland also conceding a yellow card as skipper O’Mahony departed to the sin-bin.
And yet there was never a second of doubt, no thought that the absence of Sexton would suddenly be felt.
Crowley has shown that he can step up in big moments for Munster, and he showed his nerve here, notably with two touchline conversions that ensured France were always kept at arm’s length.
Farrell added: “It typifies exactly what we are talking about. There is no doubt that a young kid playing in a position like Jack is, with the responsibility of that, all week and rightly so, everyone is talking about how we deal with not having Johnny at the helm and Jack has the first shot at filling the shoes.
“It definitely creeps in and you’d be a liar if you say it didn’t. But he takes his strength from knowing that his teammates have prepared and are there to help. He made some really good decisions and some poor ones as well. With regards to his goal-kicking when he missed one from in front, albeit a long way out, to slot two from the touchline showed great strength of character.”
In a game that pitted the two dominant forces of the northern hemisphere in recent times, Ireland was much more composed than their hosts.
France will look to bounce back when they face Scotland at Scottish Gas Murrayfield in Round 2 – with keeping 15 men on the park the first priority.
Coach Fabien Galthié was understandably disappointed at the performance and the result but insisted that France would not panic.
Ireland certainly did not. If this performance is anything to go by, the Johnny Sexton era may be over, but Ireland’s golden period has a long time left to run.
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