Six Nations: Highlights from the 2014 tournament
After a pulsating finish to this year's tournament, we pick out some of the highlights in 2014.
Last Updated: 17/03/14 6:10am
The fabulous finish gave Brian O'Driscoll the farewell he deserved from Test action, having helped end Wales' hopes for a third straight championship. Italy took the wooden spoon after Scotland stunned them in Rome. France, meanwhile, were France. From fabulous to flawed in the space of minutes.
Here we pick out six of the most important moments in the campaign, starting with a cross-Channel classic that set the tone for what was to come...
Fickou foils England - France reign in Paris
Having fought back from 16-3 down in the first half, England looked set to clinch a famous victory on French soil when a penalty from replacement Alex Goode gave them a five-point cushion going into the closing minutes. Yet just as they had endured a nightmare start - conceding a try after 30 seconds - Stuart Lancaster's side let their concentration slip again when it really mattered. Gael Fickou proved the saviour for the French, the teenager coming off the bench to show experience beyond his years to score a try that drew his team level with four minutes remaining. The centre produced a sublime dummy to hold up the outnumbered Goode and dive over. Not only did he send the home fans inside the Stade de France into a state of sheer delight, he also touched down close enough to the posts to leave Maxine Machenaud an easy conversion. While England were left to lick their wounds and look back on what might have been, Les Bleus had found a hero just when they needed one the most. Gael had blown through Paris in February, setting the tournament alight.
Pack to their best - Ireland too strong for Wales
Ireland and Wales went toe-to-toe in round two having both started out on the road to glory with comfortable victories over Scotland and Italy respectively. The build-up saw plenty of attention focused on Brian O'Driscoll coming up against Warren Gatland, a coach who had caused a major shock by dropping the experienced centre for the third and deciding British and Irish Lions Test against Australia the previous summer. However, it was another talismanic Lion who played a leading role in Dublin - Paul O'Connell returned to the starting XV after illness to be part of an Irish pack that simply smashed their Welsh counterparts. The reigning Six Nations champions saw their hopes of an unprecedented hat-trick of titles collapse as their scrum constantly did the same. Chris Henry registered his first international try by finishing a catch-and-drive from a lineout, but it was the second score that summed up Ireland's forward progress. A rolling maul pushed Wales further and further backwards before eventually the ball was worked out for sub Paddy Jackson to waltz over.
Twickenham Test a classic - England edge out Irish
Having thumped Wales on home soil, Ireland took their Grand Slam - and Triple Crown - hopes to Twickenham in round three. There they faced an England team making their first home appearance of the season and fresh off a Calcutta Cup shut-out of Scotland at a soggy Murrayfield. What unfolded was a gripping, absorbing, at times brutal, game that showed just why it is called Test rugby. After the first half finished with England 3-0 up, the visitors seemed to strike a crucial blow immediately after the break when full-back Rob Kearney crossed for a try. Jonathan Sexton added the conversion and then also a penalty, leaving the hosts with plenty of work to do. They did not panic, though, an Owen Farrell penalty closing the gap before Mike Brown's burst was finished off by Harlequins colleague Danny Care. The conversion made it a three-point lead and, despite Ireland throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at their opponents, Lancaster's lions clung on to put the destiny of the championship firmly in the melting pot.
Weir off the mark at last - Scotland pip Italy
While Italy v Scotland perhaps didn't quite have the intensity of England v Ireland that followed it, there was still plenty of drama. The game was of huge importance to both teams - the loser was almost certain to finish the campaign with the wooden spoon, an unwanted prize they had recently seen too much of. The Scots arrived in Rome having scored just six points in their previous two outings, and the signs were not good when Tommaso Allan - a fly-half who through his Scottish father could have been playing for the opposition - put the Azzurri 13-3 up at the break with a try that he also converted. However, the Scots showed some serious Braveheart spirit to battle back with a brace of tries from Alex Dunbar. And yet even when Italy looked to have won it through Joshua Furno's late, late score, Scotland still found a way to conjure up one more attack. The home team had left just enough time on the clock for their rivals to drive close to the posts and set up Duncan Weir for a drop goal that finally settled a see-saw encounter. The celebrations at the fly-half finding the target showed just how much the result meant to the away side.
The try that wasn't - Forward pass denies France
And so to the final game of the final round - with England easing to victory in Rome earlier on the Saturday, the scenario was clear. Well, relatively clear. An Ireland win in Paris would see them finish on top of the table, a France triumph in their own back yard and the title would be bound for Twickenham, though only if the margin victory wasn't ridiculously big enough for Les Bleus to leapfrog both and take the spoils. The way Mathieu Bastareaud started suggested the home team had real belief, yet the Irish weathered all the heavyweight centre and his team-mates threw at them in the first quarter to counter back with a one-two combination of their own. The hits just kept on coming - first Jonathan Sexton scored, then Dimitri Szarzewski did the same. It all meant as the minutes ticked away, Ireland led by just two. Manfully they defended, yet France seemed to have finally found a way through when Damien Chouly dived over in the right corner. The TMO was called for to check the legality of the final pass and Ireland, France and the watching England team in Italy, waited or the outcome. It had gone forward - no try. Irish eyes were smiling, particularly those belonging to one man...
A fitting finish - O'Driscoll bows out on top
Even those who perhaps don't have much time for fairy tales can't help but feel it was just right that O'Driscoll bowed out as a champion. The centre had already gone through an emotional farewell on home soil in the handsome win over Italy, his substitution in that game giving the Irish fans the chance to let the talismanic former captain know just how much they had appreciated his efforts. In his 142nd and final Test appearance he went the full 80 minutes, putting his body on the line for the last time to help his team come out on top. The Hollywood script would have had 'BOD' scoring a try, and but for some desperate cover defence that would have been the case. Instead he was tackled just shy of the line, with the ball being spun out for Sexton to cross on the next play. It did not matter to O'Driscoll, a player who offered many highlights during his international career. While a smile lit up his face at the presentation, the emotions occasionally came to the surface. Ireland will miss him greatly, and so too will the world game.