IRELAND gave Brian O’Driscoll the perfect international send-off when they won the Six Nations championship with a dramatic 22-20 victory over France, their first win in Paris since the talismanic centre made his championship debut in 2000.
Ireland, who clinched only their second title since 1985, controlled most of the game, again exposing France’s paper-thin defence as Les Bleus finished the tournament in fourth place.
Stand-off Johnny Sexton scored two tries and kicked seven points and winger Andrew Trimble also touched down for Ireland, while France’s points came from tries by Brice Dulin and Dimitri Szarzewski and the boot of Maxime Machenaud.
As the finish line beckoned, however, Ireland stopped playing and almost paid a fatal price when France crossed the line a minute from time, only to have the score ruled out for forward pass.
They survived to leave England second, on eight points but behind on points difference after thrashing Italy 52-11 earlier on Saturday.
“Je suis tres content,” O’Driscoll said in French in a pitchside interview.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. I’ve played a long time for Ireland and to only have won one Six Nations championship would have been disappointing so I’m really delighted for this group of players, for how talented they are, how hard they worked and to have won against a very good French team.
“It’s just a magnificent feeling. I’m sure there be a few tears later on and there were a few tears earlier when coach Joe (Schmidt) gave his last team talk. It was quite emotional.
“I promise you it’s the last time in a green jersey. I’m absolutely overwhelmed.”
“There is where it all began and to finish with a medal around my neck 15 years later is incredible,” O’Driscoll added. He was referring to Ireland’s last win in Paris, in 2000, when O’Driscoll, nine months into his great career, scored a hat trick of tries and made his name.
“I played on for one more year hopeful to get a victory against the All Blacks – that didn’t happen – and to win a Six Nations, and that did happen,” said O’Driscoll, who will retire in the summer.
“You can’t have it all, but you take the bits that you get. Not many people get to finish their career on their own terms – certainly not with high emotions like today. I’m extremely lucky and thankful to have been a part of a great, great team.
“It’s been a fantastic Six Nations for us. I’ve enjoyed every second.
“I don’t really want to take this jersey off yet, because I know when I do it’s the last time. I’m dragging the arse out of it a little bit!”
O’Driscoll, who has won a world-record 141 Test caps, continued: “I think I tried to channel the emotions into the performance.
“I played fair today, and you can’t allow the occasion to get the better of you. You have to try to make sure you’re the cog in the wheel for the team.
“Emotions come afterwards and they did. I’m sure there will be a few tears – later on, with multiple beers on board, probably. It’s a lovely way to finish out. I’ve had so much fun over the last 15 years, and I feel very grateful to finish in this fantastic way.
“I got a frog in my throat on the final whistle all right. You’re not yourself sometimes when you’re being interviewed. It feels as though you’re trying to present a certain way. After scenarios like today it comes out a bit more, particularly when it’s the end. You have to be as natural as you can.
“Over the course of the next while, when it sinks in, I’m sure it will flood out. When I pull the jersey off it will be hard, but it will come with a great sense of happiness to finish off with a great high after a lot of nearly moments.”
Schmidt was delighted. “The fairytale continued right to the end for the magic man (O’Driscoll) and I’m just delighted for him,” he said.
“It’s unbearable, I’m not sure I can last too long doing this job, the heart just about gave up but I think we’ve shown incredible discipline right through the tournament and I think it was a credit to the players today that they maintained their discipline right to the finish.”
He added: “I don’t think anybody will step into Brian’s shoes. They’re rather big, but hopefully they can grow into them.”
“I’m over the moon, very happy for the lads and obviously very happy for Brian in his last international,” Ireland captain Paul O’Connell said. “Historically, this is always our toughest Six Nations with England away from home and France away from home, so to win the championship with these two fixtures is a great success.”
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre was happy with his team’s performance.
“We can’t say our players can’t play rugby. There was a will, there was solidarity and the ambition to play ball, to make passes, to create,” he told a news conference.
“Credit to Ireland – they are deserved winners and it’s a fitting finale and send-off for Brian O’Driscoll, a legend of the game whom everyone in this squad respects massively,” England coach Stuart Lancaster said in a statement.