The visitors paraded a team brimful of youthful promise and, though they were forced to man the trenches for long spells, they were never out of touch and were in no way flattered by the end margin.
Much was made of Les Bleus’ vast arsenal of talent in midweek when Bernard Laporte recommissioned old warhorses like Olivier Magne and Serge Betsen and their enviable supplies were in further evidence here with the likes of Biarritz’s Imanol Harinordoquy and Bourgoin’s Guillaume Bousses taking the paddock.
The hosts dictated the agenda for the first ten minutes, pinning Ireland back inside their own half as they worked methodically through phase after phase. The first crack in the Irish rearguard appeared nine minutes in when some Irish indiscipline at a ruck allowed David Skrela - son of the famous Jean-Claude - to slot a penalty between the posts.
Five minutes later and the opening try finally arrived. With Michael Bradley’s side having to constantly send reinforcements into one ruck after another, the supply of defenders inevitably dried up with Harinordoquy ending up as the spare man wide on the right.
Skrela landed the conversion to stretch the gap to ten but Ireland’s response was rapid and impressive in equal measures. Jeremy Staunton landed their first score from a penalty before breaks from Mick O’Driscoll and Kieran Lewis came up agonisingly short of the line.
Staunton dragged Ireland closer towards parity with another kick at the posts after 31 minutes.
With less than a minute to the break an unfortunate set of circumstances led to France’s second try. It started with hooker John Fogarty going down injured and developed from there. Brian Blaney had only just ditched his tracksuit when the touch judge failed to see that Benjamin Thierry’s kick deep into the Irish 22 went straight into touch.
Blaney wisely opted for a short throw having come in - literally - from the cold but, well, you can guess the rest. After the steal, France wedged a hole in the Irish ranks for their own hooker Benjamin Kayzer to make the decisive break.
Skrela then added insult to injury by splitting the sticks inches from the spot where Thierry’s wayward kick had landed only moments earlier to leave it 17-6 at the break.
One stunning break from wing John Hearty aside, Ireland again found themselves clocking in for a glut of defensive chores for the third quarter though Staunton’s dependable boot brought another three points on 51 minutes on a rare excursion upfield.
Skrela aped that soon after to leave it 20-9 but, though France prodded and probed, they failed to produce a move good enough to unlock a gutsy and well-maintained Irish line for the remainder of the night.
Inevitably, both benches began to make changes midway through the half and two teams already unaccustomed to playing as units struggled to find the fluency their talents might otherwise have allowed.
Staunton brought Ireland to within eight points with his fourth penalty on an evening where he was flawless in front of the posts and so it remained at 20-12 as the last lap approached.
With the game still there for the taking, Ireland began to see chinks of light at the far side of the pitch. Twice they threatened the French line only for a stolen line-out and dropped pass from Jamie Heaslip to stall their momentum and ambitions. A defeat then, but hardly one to be ashamed of.
: G Duffy, J Hearty, B Murphy, K Lewis, C McPhillips, J Staunton, T O’Leary; R Hogan, J Fogarty, B Young, M O’Driscoll, M McCullough, N Best, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: B Blaney for Fogarty 37, R McCormack for Hogan 47, C Keane for O’Leary 59, P Wallace for Staunton 68, L Cullen for McCullough 70, B Cunningham for Murphy 72, R Wilson for Heaslip 73.
: B Thierry; V Clerc, G Bousses, P Bidabe, JB Gobelet; D Skrela, N Durand (capt); JP Paux, B Kayser, N Mas, G Lamboley, A Marchoise, T Dusutoir, G Le Corvec, I Harinordoquy. Replacements: J Peyrelongue for Poux, V Debaty for Kayzer, B Cabello for Dussautoir (all 56), A Albouy for Durand 70, G Messina for Skrela 76.
: G Di Santis (Italy).