Ireland are in “pole position” to pull off a Six Nations grand slam, according to France prop Uini Atonio.
Ireland saw off Les Bleus 18-11 in Dublin on Saturday to set up a potential Six Nations decider with England at the Aviva Stadium on March 1.
England eased past Italy 47-17 at Twickenham, leaving Stuart Lancaster and Joe Schmidt’s sides the unbeaten teams in the tournament.
Hulking France prop Atonio, the Six Nations’ heaviest player at 155kg, clambered off the bench to hand Ireland a second-half fright that ultimately came to nought for Philippe Saint-Andre’s men.
The 24-year-old La Rochelle star believed France almost turned the tide against Ireland, but says Schmidt’s side can now complete a European clean sweep.
“They won the tournament last year, so they are capable of doing that again,” said Atonio. “And they are in pole position to do the grand slam I think.
“To be honest, I’m not looking down on them but I hope they could lose one game, because that would still give us a chance of winning the tournament.
“It’s such a tough competition, so if you’re not on your ‘A’ game you’re going to lose. I know we’ve still got a chance, but Ireland are the front-runners now.
“All of us front-row replacements came on in the second-half and it’s our job to change the pace of the game.
“I think we did that, and Romain (Taofifenua) scored a good try as well.
“If we’d played another 10 minutes we would have won – but hats off to Ireland because they played a great game.
“We saw the way they’ve played, they’ve moved up the IRB rankings and they are a world-class team.”
Fit-again fly-half Johnny Sexton scotched fears for his safety with a peerless performance on his return from an enforced 12-week concussion lay-off. The 29-year-old copped a wide cut and a hefty black eye after two clashes of heads with France’s Mathieu Bastareaud, but landed 15 points with the boot in a classy performance.