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we bleu it France, a human mountain range, were just too big and powerful for Ireland


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Mack Hansen runs in to score Ireland's first try against France. Photo by Seb Daly

Mack Hansen runs in to score Ireland's first try against France. Photo by Seb Daly

Mack Hansen runs in to score Ireland's first try against France. Photo by Seb Daly

IRELAND, lacking Johnny Sexton but oozing competitive courage, limped out of Paris ­reflecting on an ancient truth.

Size matters.

France, a mountain range in human form, a Panzer ­division with electrifying pace, were too big and powerful.

As Ireland's Grand Slam ambitions perished, an argument can be made that sloppiness cost Andy Farrell's side a golden opportunity, that they will rue inaccuracies with the world's form team creaking as Ireland launched a second-half offensive.

Some might even suggest a team marshalled by Sexton might have kicked to the corner and gone for the jugular rather than the safer option of a 74th minute kick at goal which reduced the margin to three points.

But against hulking opponents, the counter-thesis is that it just came down to the fact that even the most efficient traffic cops are impotent when confronted by a fleet of runaway juggernauts.

At their most fluent, France's irresistible combination of size, speed and ambition is that of a team who might yet add their name to the roll call of great teams.

But they were spooked by Ireland's ability to stubbornly hang onto their shirttails into the dying minutes.

Sexton (inset) is as familiar a landmark of these Parisian weekends as the Eiffel Tower's wrought-iron lattices or the elegant curve of the Arc De Triomphe.

Four years ago, his nerveless, buzzer-beating drop-goal ­unlocked a pathway to a rare Grand Slam; in 2020, the mighty Stade de France seemed to tremble under the tumult of the old warrior's agitation at Andy Farrell (inset right) for removing him from the combat zone.

Even in injury-enforced absence this time, he cast a towering shadow.

When the out-half's hamstring snapped in training on Thursday, a fever engulfed the markets: the oddsmakers flipped their prices, France replacing Ireland as favourites to win as a potential championship decider.

It was an acknowledgement of a simple truth, that acknowledges the force of Sexton's personality and how Ireland's fortunes tend to live and die by his deeds.

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The suspicion is that Ireland without their 36-year-old pilot light are doomed to thrash about in darkness.

Inevitably, then, the most intense Six Nations searchlight was trained on the lonely, brunette figure of Joey Carbery.

At 26, no longer the hyped neophyte, the roadblocks of injury after injury stalling a journey to the stratosphere many believed to be a hugely gifted athlete's birthright.

Remarkably, this was the New Zealand-born, Athy-reared quarterback's first championship start. Before Carbery registered his first touch, Ireland were seven points behind, their lungs burning and gasping for air.

A combination of Gallic power, pace and invention saw French alchemist Antoine Dupont touching down within 68 seconds of kick-off. When Melvyn Jaminet added a penalty, the Stade De France felt as forbidding as a slaughterhouse with the stun-bolt aimed at the heads of the dazzled Irish herd.

France, mammoth, electrifying, awash with creative brio, looked ready to take Ireland to a dark place. There was a brief reprieve: Mack Hansen galloping 40 yards to pluck Carbery's long restart from the skies as France snoozed. Try for Ireland. Eight minutes gone, 17 points on the board.

But if that fuelled hopes that Ireland's hopes were far from cratered, the pressure remained intense.

France's awesome physicality, lubricated by Dupont's talents, inflicted damaging shrapnel wounds.

For the Irish players it would have been an education in what it felt to be a 19th century frontiersman wondering into a buffalo herd rampaging across the Texan plains.

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Romain Taofifenua and James Ryan contest a lineout. Picture by Brendan Moran

Romain Taofifenua and James Ryan contest a lineout. Picture by Brendan Moran

Romain Taofifenua and James Ryan contest a lineout. Picture by Brendan Moran

Hugo Keenan was smashed 15 yards backward and propelled into touch like a rag doll. Cyril Baille cleared out Andrew Porter like he was a pint-sized scrum-half rather than the most hulking prop ever to wear the green shirt.

Even Bundee Aki was impotent when caught in the mighty blue tide and sent hurtling downriver.

As Jaminet piled on the points, it was apparent that this was another universe of opponent to the Welsh side Ireland had effortlessly skewered a week earlier.

Ireland's nine-game winning streak looked to be headed down a Parisian cul de sac.

At times in that first half the French were so rampant it seemed it would hardly matter if Sexton had been available along with peak-era Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Mike Gibson.

Yet, Ireland declined to go away. Josh van der Flier's 46th minute try - brilliantly converted by Carbery - arrived like an energy bolt, reducing the gap to eight.

Within three minutes Jamison Gibson Park sold a dummy that left the entire French defence with twisted blood and torqued to the line in an Olympic sprinter's blur.

Remarkably, Ireland were within a point. Unchained from their doubts, could they break free to record a Parisian victory as memorable as the O'Driscoll three-try masterclass of 2000?

Would Carbery be handed the opportunity to emulate Sexton's 2018 killshot?

Hopes that Ireland had passed safely through the ferocious French squall had the shortest shelf life. Again, it was an illustration of the importance of raw physicality.

Most land masses the size of Cyril Baille have capital cities. And when Ireland, having won a defensive line-out, coughed up possession the Toulouse prop pounced.

James Ryan and Porter - two serious physical specimens - were sent backwards like feathers in a storm under the sheer terrifying force of Baille's advance to the line.

But Ireland - despite problems in the line-out, though they were physically buffeted - declined to buckle.

Carbery's languidly struck penalty on 73 minutes took Ireland within three points - but Hurricane France raged one last time.

And Ireland were broken.

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