by Marcus Leach
The 2014 RBS Six Nations climaxed with another thrilling weekend of international rugby that saw Ireland crowned as this year's champions.
It was the perfect ending for Brian O'Driscoll, who, after fifteen years at the very top of the game, said his final farewell to the world stage. Elsewhere England secured second place with a thumping victory over Italy and Wales destroyed a Scotland side hampered by the sending off of full-back Stuart Hogg.
France 20 Ireland 22
Ireland claimed their first Six Nations title since 2009 with a hard-fought 22-20 victory over France in Paris on Saturday night, giving Brian O'Driscoll a fairytale end to his illustrious international career.
Despite just one victory in Paris in the last forty years Ireland came into the came as favourites, yet France, stung by the constant criticism in their media, sparked into life and but for the most marginal of forward passes would have ruined the party for Ireland.
This was a real Test match, hard, fast, exciting and at times simply too much to watch as Ireland clung on for a hugely popular victory. Even the most loyal England fans could not begrudge O'Driscoll the perfect ending, even if it meant they fell agonisingly short of the title themselves. If ever a player has transcended the sport and it's national loyalties it is BOD.
The early signs in this game suggested France would upset the apple cart as they took the game to Ireland with a series of rampaging runs that caught the visitors cold. Somehow they hung on, the concession of a brace of penalties a pretty decent outcome considering they could have been down and out before they even got going.
It was their scrum that got them back into the game, a string of penalties at the set piece allowing them to gain some field position from which to establish themselves. Two tries in five minutes swung the momentum ireland's way and suddenly it was the French who were in danger of being blown out of the water. They were saved by the fact that Jonny Sexton's boot was off-colour and they did something that they haven't done in a long time. Rather than letting heads go down they composed themselves and took the fight back to Ireland with controlled, intelligent rugby.
With half-time approaching they were rewarded with a delightful try. A cross-field kick looked to be covered until suddenly Yoann Huget rose high and with a volleyball style slap pushed the ball back into the path of the on-rushing Brice Dulin who went over in the corner. The conversion sailed over and France, much to the delight of the home faithful, lead once again.
The second half continued in the same manner as the first, and there was almost the perfect score for O'Driscoll. Poor timing of the pass by Andrew Trimble gave the cover defence that extra second and BOD was hauled down a yard short. All was not lost as Sexton picked a sublime line and ensured Ireland got the score they so desperately needed, adding the conversion to give his side a six point lead. That became nine when he landed a penalty.
Again France could have buckled, again they gathered themselves for the fight. The reward for their siege on the Irish line was a try, albeit a rather controversial one. Szarzewski pushed the ball against the base of the post and referee Steve Walsh gave it without checking with the TMO - yet replays clearly show he dropped the ball before pushing it forward. On such decisions games can be won and lost. Suddenly France had their heads up and Ireland looked to be spent.
Eight minutes to go and France had their chance, a kickable penalty, yet with the usually deadly Machenaud having been replaced moments before the kick fell to Jean-Marc Doussain. The replacement missed and the whole of Ireland began to believe that maybe this was their day after all. Still the drama was not over as FRance kept on coming and with a little over ninety seconds on the clock they were over in the corner. As the stadium went wild Walsh stood unmoved as he called for a TMO decision.
Replays showed that the final pass from captain Pascal Pape to the unmarked Damien Chouly was marginally forward, this really was going to be Ireland's day now. They held out under pressure at the scrum, the win was theirs and O'Driscoll was sent into retirement with the perfect farewell gift.
Tries: Dulin, Szarzewski
Cons: Machenaud 2
Pens: Machenaud 2
Tries: Sexton 2, Trimble
Cons: Sexton 2
Wales 51 Scotland 3
Wales racked up fifty points as they put Scotland, who played for an hour with fourteen men, to the sword in a totally one-sided encounter in Cardiff.
Leading 10-3 with twenty minutes on the clock Wales cut loose after Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg was shown a red card for a reckless shoulder barge on Dan Biggar. Referee Jérôme Garcès initially gave Hogg a yellow card, but upon seeing replays shown on the big screen in the stadium called him back to brandish a red. Hogg could have no complaints, his challenge was late, calculated and connected with Biggar's head in mid-air.
From there on in it was a calk-walk for the home side as they rattled up the points, scoring some truly magnificent tries along the way. The numerical advantage clearly helped them, but they still produced rugby of the highest order, two length of the field tries showing their true attacking class. The game was, in terms of the Championship, a dead rubber, yet the result ensured Wales finished third thanks to their superior points difference over France.
On a glorious day in the Welsh capital the roof was strangely closed, one can only assume to intensify the noise levels in the stadium, but Wales ensured there was plenty for the crowd to cheer. For Scotland and Scott Johnson though this was a dark day - his side came to Cardiff with a sense of optimism yet left with plenty to ponder before the summer internationals.
Wales finished the tournament on a high but know that they too have plenty to think about before next year's World Cup - their two losses have asked questions over the ability to play a different style of rugby when it is needed. Time will tell if they learn from those losses, but for now they will enjoy what was a fine finish to the tournament.
Tries: L Williams, North 2, Roberts 2, Faletau, R Williams
Cons: Biggar 4, Hook
Pen: Biggar 2
Italy 11 England 52
England recorded a convincing 51-11 victory over Italy in a sun-drenched Rome, running in seven tries in the process.
England knew that to stand any chance of winning the title that they would have to rack up a huge score, which they did. Sadly for them it wasn't quite enough to clinch the title. They will ultimately look back on defeat in the opening game of the tournament with a sense of regret, but they should not ponder that for too long. Yes they failed to claim the title, but the bigger picture is that this squad have come on leaps and bounds over the past few months and must now be chock full of confidence a year out from the World Cup.
Knowing that they had to win by at least fifty points England were guilty of trying to play a little too much rugby early on, and as a result there were plenty of little errors that allowed Italy to stay in the game. Eventually England found a little patience in their play, and with it came points. England's man of the moment Mike Brown as once again at the heart of the action, crossing for his side's first try.
Two more tries before the break and England were on their way, leading 24-6 and with Italy tiring the big score they so desired was looking very likely. The pressure on Italy's defence increased after the break as England started to cross at will, and with fifteen minutes to go it looked for all the money that they would score at least the required fifty points they needed.
But that all changed when, looking to go wide from a re-start, England coughed up the easiest of intercept tries for Leonardo Sarto. That score meant the points difference came down and with it England seemed to lose their belief. They did cross for one final try but by then they knew their only chance of taking the title rested with France beating Ireland.
Pens: Orquera 2
Tries: Brown 2, Farrell, Nowell, Vunipola, Tuilagi, Robshaw
Cons: Farrell 7