DUBLIN (REUTERS) - Ireland finally produced some Six Nations form on Sunday (March 10) by hammering France with a 26-14 scoreline that flattered the visitors to keep alive their remote chance of back-to-back titles ahead of next weekend's finale of games.
Captain Rory Best got the Irish going with an early try while Johnny Sexton, Jack Conan and Keith Earls also crossed before the hosts made several changes and Yoann Huget and Camille Chat managed late consolation tries for France.
The champions' misfiring in an opening loss to England and stuttering wins over Italy and Scotland raised questions over World Cup credentials that defeats of New Zealand and Australia since last year's Grand Slam had done so much to boost.
Above all in need of a performance to banish some of those doubts, Ireland got just that and utterly outclassed a French side that, not for the first time in this year's championship, looked completely out of their depth.
"I think that was a lot closer to how we want to be known and how we want to play," Best, who opened the scoring after three minutes, said in a pitchside interview.
Ireland can upset Wales' Grand Slam hopes and overtake the Six Nations leaders with a win in Cardiff next Saturday, but will need Scotland to avoid defeat by England at Twickenham, where they have not won in 36 years, to retain the championship.
Wales are top of the standings with 16 points after their perfect start ahead of England on 15 and Ireland with 14.
Simply ending Wales' national record winning streak at 13 matches will go a long way to further boosting Irish confidence that was restored as soon as Best touched down in the corner.
In what the 36-year-old hooker said afterwards was his last Six Nations game at home, Best's try was the result of early, dominant work from his pack that continued throughout.
While France were unchanged from the 27-10 win over Scotland last time out - a rarity for a team who have become a model of inconsistency - they appeared just as lost as during England's record win against Les Bleus in the Six Nations in round two.
Still, despite controlling over 90 percent of the territory, it took Ireland until the 30th minute to add a second try as Sexton, back to his best in tandem with Conor Murray at halfback, scored from one of his trademark looped runs.
The hosts only had to wait five more minutes for another as they began to pick off the overwhelmed visitors at will with replacement Conan giving his side a 19-0 halftime lead that could easily have been twice that with a little more accuracy.
France managed to get hold of some ball early in the second half but never looked like threatening before Earls became Ireland's joint second-highest try scorer when he ran clear for his 30th international try.
With a bonus point secured and one eye on Cardiff, Ireland were able to withdraw Best, Murray, Sexton and fellow British and Irish Lion Tadhg Furlong before the hour.
The subsequent petering out of the game allowed Huget and Chat to grab two consolation tries in the last three minutes and avoid a record defeat at the hands of Ireland that still did nothing to hide huge concerns for the French.
"I'm really disappointed by the start of the game, obviously it was a bit better at the end, we showed a different face but we spent too much time defending," France head coach Jacques Brunel told a news conference.