Reigning Grand Slam champions Ireland launch their Guinness Six Nations title defence against pre-tournament favourites France in Marseille.

Antoine Dupont and Johnny Sexton will be notable absentees as the two sides go into a new era on the back of agonising Rugby World Cup exits.

Here, the PA news agency picks out some of the main talking points ahead of Friday’s tantalising championship curtain-raiser.

World Cup hangovers? Grand Slam decider?

France's World Cup dream was ended by eventual champions South Africa

France versus Ireland was widely touted as a potential World Cup final. The two nations were Test rugby’s top-ranked teams in the build-up to the tournament before their campaigns ended in the space of 24 hours with enthralling quarter-final defeats. Ireland’s 17-match winning run was halted by a 28-24 loss to New Zealand in Paris, before the hosts were beaten 29-28 in the same city by eventual champions South Africa. Both will be eager to respond to those disappointments in a mouth-watering fixture which has ultimately proved to be a Grand Slam decider in the past two years.

Absent stars

Johnny Sexton, middle, and Antoine Dupont, left, will be notable absentees on Friday evening

Dupont’s decision to focus on France’s sevens squad for this year’s Paris Olympics has deprived the championship of its leading star. The scrum-half has been crowned player of the tournament in the three of the past four years. He will be replaced in the number nine jersey by Maxime Lucu, with Gregory Alldritt taking on the captaincy. Ireland, meanwhile, must move on following the retirement of talismanic former captain Sexton. The 38-year-old – the Six Nations’ record points scorer with 566 – has left a void on and off the field. Flanker Peter O’Mahony is Ireland’s new skipper, while Jack Crowley, Ciaran Frawley and Harry Byrne will compete for the fly-half role.

Sexton’s long-term successor

Jack Crowley will start at fly-half for Ireland

To coin an Andy Farrell phrase, Crowley is the “next cab off the rank” in the contest to become Sexton’s long-term successor. The Munster player served as understudy at the World Cup and has been selected for his full Six Nations debut. Crowley’s only previous championship appearance was a three-minute cameo away to Italy last February, while just three of his nine caps have come as a starter. Yet the 24-year-old is the most experienced out-half in his country’s 34-man squad. Frawley, who has been named on the bench, has only 40 minutes of Test action to his name, while his Leinster team-mate Byrne has not featured at international level since playing 56 minutes across substitute outings against the USA and Argentina in 2021.

Unfamiliar surroundings

Stade de France in Paris became a second home for Ireland during last autumn’s World Cup. Farrell’s men had hoped to play five successive matches there but had to settle for three following defeat to the All Blacks. There will be no swift return to Saint-Denis – the scene of memorable wins over South Africa and Scotland – for the Irish as France are this year playing their tournament matches away from the capital due to the upcoming Olympics. Stade Velodrome will be unfamiliar surroundings for many of Farrell’s squad, albeit the Leinster contingent suffered a heart-breaking, last-gasp loss to La Rochelle there in the 2022 Champions Cup final.

Opportunity knocks for McCarthy and Nash

In addition to the selection of Crowley, Farrell has handed Six Nations debuts to Test rookies Joe McCarthy and Calvin Nash. The head coach has shown plenty of faith in 22-year-old Leinster lock McCarthy by picking him ahead of experienced duo James Ryan and Iain Henderson. Meanwhile, Munster wing Nash has an opportunity to capitalise on the misfortune of injured star Mack Hansen. The 26-year-old won his only previous cap as a replacement in a World Cup warm-up win over Italy but has been in fine form for his province. “All you need in life is an opportunity, and it’s a big one for Calvin,” said Farrell.