By STEVE DOUGLAS
2014-03-16 06:01 AM
Ireland won the Six Nations and lost its favorite son in a thrilling end to a competition that leaves more questions than answers about where the balance of power lies in northern hemisphere rugby, 18 months out from the World Cup.
The script couldn't have been written any better as Brian O'Driscoll, retiring after a world-record 141 test caps, kissed the trophy in the middle of a Stade de France pitch where he first shot to international prominence 14 years ago.
Back in March 2000, a spell-binding hat trick of tries by O'Driscoll earned the Irish a first win in Paris in 28 years and inspired a new generation of Ireland players to believe they could challenge the world's best.
It seems fitting that he ended his international career in the French capital on Saturday, helping the Irish grind out a 22-20 win and become the kings of Europe for the first time since 2009.
"Not many people get to finish their career on their own terms and with high emotions," O'Driscoll said. "I feel very fortunate."
But will the Irish stay there? Probably not.
Not without the talismanic O'Driscoll leading them into battle. And not if a young, hungry and dynamic England continues the upward momentum it is showing under Stuart Lancaster.
England finished runner-up for the third straight year, losing out on points difference just like it did 12 months ago when a sobering 30-3 thrashing by Wales cost Lancaster's side the grand slam, the Triple Crown and the title.
The only regrets the English will have this time around will be the sloppy way they started and finished the 26-24 loss to France in their opening game in Paris. Otherwise, the Six Nations could hardly have gone any better for Lancaster, with the wins over Ireland and Wales at Twickenham hailed as coming-of-age results.
"I am very proud of what we have achieved over the tournament," Lancaster said after Saturday's 52-11 win in Italy, "both in how this young group has developed and also our intent to play attacking rugby."
A three-test tour of New Zealand this summer will be another severe examination of that development, but it would be no surprise if England -- now the highest-ranked team in Europe at No. 4 -- is the favorite by the time the next Six Nations comes around.
Wales' bid for an unprecedented third straight title outright foundered on chastening away defeats to Ireland and England that led many to question whether a team that provided so many players to last year's successful British Lions squad needed an overhaul.
It may be too soon for that.
The Welsh still have arguably the most formidable starting XV in Europe, with a powerful and experienced pack, genuine match-winners in the backs and one of the best goalkickers in the world in Leigh Halfpenny. If they had a top-class No. 10 -- Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar don't seem to be at the required level -- there would be few chinks in their armor.
A 51-3 closing win over Scotland -- albeit against a side playing with 14 men for an hour -- showed how good Wales can be when its backline clicks. That result saw Wales place third, ahead of France on points difference.
This Six Nations simply reinforced the perception of France as the world's most enigmatic, maverick rugby team. The Six Nations after a Lions tour is usually when the French come through strong -- and they came into the final weekend with a shot at the title.
The nature of the defeat to Ireland -- sublime one minute, disappointing the next -- summed them up. And it provided more evidence that there is little progress being made under coach Philippe Saint-Andre, under whom France has finished fourth, last and fourth in the last three Six Nations.
Scotland placed fifth with one win and will look to new coach Vern Cotter, who takes over this summer when he leaves French club Clermont-Auvergne, to spark an upturn in fortunes.
Italy finished last for the first time since 2011, with five straight losses a disappointing return considering the Azzurri beat both France and Ireland in last year's tournament.