When Johnny Sexton missed this fixture 12 months ago, his replacement at 10 was Ulster’s Billy Burns with his Leinster understudy Ross Byrne the man held in reserve.
Today in the Stade de France, in the absence of the side’s skipper, it is Munster’s Joey Carbery at out-half and the in-form Connacht man Jack Carty manning the bench.
Two games, 52 weeks, four jerseys and four different players. It’s a neat summation of the quandary facing Ireland as they face up to the reality that one day in the not too distant future, the 2018 World Player of the Year will no longer be there.
Where once there was an overlap of the Test readiness of David Humphreys and Ronan O’Gara, and then O’Gara and Sexton, there has been no such clear heir apparent this time around.
If Sexton’s screaming into O’Gara’s ear after Gordon D’Arcy’s Heineken Cup try was then a roar that the future was now, in 2022 it remains at best a polite suggestion.
In Carbery’s defence, he has long been seen as the man most likely and would have likely built up a greater body of evidence that he is primed if not for the injuries that have plagued him since the eve of the 2019 World Cup. That this is the 26-year-old’s first ever start in the Six Nations says much about his rotten run of luck since then.
But if he didn’t believe he had what it takes to succeed one of Ireland’s greatest ever players, he’d likely still be wearing 12 or 15 at the RDS rather than the 10 jersey in Limerick.
Now is the time to show it for it is games like this when reputations are forged. Should Carbery guide Ireland to victory this evening in Sexton’s absence, it would enhance his standing in a way countless bench cameos never could.
The man outside him in Ireland’s backline believes he is ready for the big moment.
“Joey has evolved,” said Bundee Aki, Ireland’s inside centre. “He knows what he’s doing. I’m confident we’ll play well together. Joey’s well equipped to run games, he just does his thing and we follow him. There are a lot of leaders in our group and we have the ‘Cheese’, James Ryan, (to stand in as captain) so we’ll just do our job and follow them.”
This game, though, cannot be boiled down to merely a battle of Ireland’s new 10 and his French counterpart Romain Ntamack.
Elsewhere the battles between the two sides that entered the tournament as favourites, and banked opening-round bonus-point wins, are plentiful.
While the world champion, Lions-slaying South Africans may have something to say about it, Ireland all of a sudden possess the form pack in global rugby. With Andrew Porter’s loosehead conversion, the emergence of Caelan Doris, and the reigniting of Jack Conan, the Irish eight have been transformed.
All comfortable on the ball, all taking on their share of the load at the breakdown, they are the straw that has stirred the drink during this nine-game winning streak. While all four scores last week came through the backs, it was the work of the forwards that really blew Wales off the Aviva Stadium pitch.
France, though, provide a different sort of test. The competition between the front and back-rows figures to be intense, the game within the game once both powerful benches are unleashed potentially pivotal.
What seems certain is that, unlike seven days ago, Ireland won’t have things all their own way from starting blocks to finishing line.
“A big part of international rugby or any big sporting event is that you’ve got to be mentally strong to stay in the moment and there’s no doubt that France are going to have a purple patch,” reflected Andy Farrell. “That happens, it’s an absolute given. How we get back down to neutral and get back on task is going to be key for both sides, there’s no doubt.”
Ireland have already suffered their first instance of adversity. How they deal with it, and whatever France can throw at them, will likely define their year.