IRELAND, bereft of Johnny Sexton but brimming with competitive grit, limped out of Paris pondering an ancient truth.
France, a mountain range in human form, an electrifying panzer division, was too big and too powerful.
As Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions have perished, it’s safe to say neglect cost Andy Farrell’s side a golden opportunity, that they will regret inaccuracies with the creaking in-form world squad as Ireland launched an attack in the second half.
Some might even suggest that a side put together by Sexton could have kicked into the corner and opted for the jugular rather than the safer option of a 74th minute kick on goal that reduced the margin to three points.
But against towering opponents, the counter-thesis is that it boils down to the fact that even the most efficient traffic cops are powerless against a fleet of fleeing behemoths.
At its most fluid form, France’s irresistible combination of size, speed and ambition is that of a team that could yet add its name to the appeal of the big teams.
But they were spooked by Ireland’s ability to stubbornly cling to their shirttails in the final minutes.
Sexton (inset) is a landmark of these Parisian weekends as familiar as the wrought iron trellises of the Eiffel Tower or the elegant curve of the Arc de Triomphe.
Four years ago, his nerveless, buzzer-beating drop-goal paved the way for a rare Grand Slam; in 2020, the mighty Stade de France seemed to tremble under the tumult of the old warrior’s agitation against Andy Farrell (boxed right) for taking him away from the fighting zone.
Even in the enforced absence through injury this time, he cast a towering shadow.
When the half-back’s hamstring broke in training on Thursday, a fever engulfed the markets: odds takers reversed their prices, with France replacing Ireland as favorites to win as decider championship potential.
It was recognition of a simple truth, which acknowledges the strength of Sexton’s personality and how Ireland’s fortunes tend to live and die by his deeds.
The suspicion is that Ireland without its 36-year-old nightlight is doomed to struggle in the dark.
Inevitably, then, the most intense spotlight in the Six Nations was shone on the lonely, brown figure of Joey Carbery.
At 26, he is no longer the fashionable neophyte, roadblocks of injury after injury blocking a journey into the stratosphere, many believe to be the birthright of a supremely gifted athlete.
Remarkably, this was the first championship start for the New Zealand-born, Athy-bred quarterback. Before Carbery registered his first touch, Ireland were seven points behind, their lungs burning and out of breath.
A combination of power, speed and Gallic invention allowed French alchemist Antoine Dupont to land within 68 seconds of kick-off. When Melvyn Jaminet added a penalty, Stade De France felt as forbidding as a slaughterhouse with the punch aimed at the heads of the dazzled Irish herd.
Mammoth, electrifying France, awash in creative brilliance, looked set to take Ireland to a dark place. There was a brief reprieve: Mack Hansen galloping 40 yards to snatch Carbery’s long restart from the sky as France dozed. Try for Ireland. Eight minutes past, 17 points on the board.
But while that fueled hopes that Ireland’s hopes were far from doomed, the pressure remained intense.
France’s impressive physique, lubricated by Dupont’s talents, inflicted damaging shrapnel wounds.
For Irish players, it would have been an education in what they thought was a 19th century frontier wondering in a buffalo herd raging across the Texas plains.
Hugo Keenan was crushed 15 yards back and thrown into touch like a rag doll. Cyril Baille knocked out Andrew Porter as if he was a pint-sized scrum-half rather than the hulking prop to ever wear the green jersey.
Even Bundee Aki was helpless when caught in the mighty blue tide and sent downstream.
As Jaminet racked up the points, it was obvious that this was another universe of opponents for the Welsh side that Ireland had effortlessly skewered a week earlier.
Ireland’s nine-game winning streak seemed to be heading for a Parisian dead end.
At times in that first half, the French were so rampant that it seemed like it wouldn’t matter much if Sexton had been available along with Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Mike Gibson.
Yet Ireland refused to leave. Josh van der Flier’s 46th-minute try – brilliantly converted by Carbery – came in like a flash of energy, closing the gap to eight.
Within three minutes, Jamison Gibson Park sold out a dummy that left the entire French defense in twisted blood and crashed down the line in the blur of an Olympic sprinter.
Remarkably, Ireland were within one point. Freed from their doubts, could they free themselves to record a Parisian victory as memorable as O’Driscoll’s three-try masterclass in 2000?
Would Carbery get the chance to mimic Sexton’s 2018 killshot?
Hopes that Ireland had safely made it through the fierce French squall had the shortest lifespan. Again, this 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 alignment, spat possession, the Toulouse accessory jumped.
James Ryan and Porter – two serious physical specimens – were sent back like feathers in a storm under the terrifying force of Baille’s advance towards the line.
But Ireland – despite having problems in the line-up, despite being shaken physically – refused to back down.
Carbery’s languid 73rd-minute penalty brought Ireland within three points – but Hurricane France raged one last time.
And Ireland was broken.