The games were staggered and so was belief. The last round of the RBS Six Nations set up three consecutive finals of increasing importance in Rome, Edinburgh, then London, and all managed to blow away expectations.
In the end, Ireland won successive championships for the first time in 66 years when England, needing to beat France in the finale by 26 points at Twickenham, fell short by a measly six.
England brought the tension to an almost unbearable level when they went 20 points ahead with five minutes to go. In the last moments, the English got a maul crawling to the tryline, and even drew in some backs, but France stopped it, and earned a relieving penalty.
England scored a team-record 55 against France, but it wasn’t enough because the unpredictable French showed up and scored 35.
So Ireland, watching at BT Murrayfield where they beat Scotland 40-10, walked out on to the field and danced before thousands of their supporters who also stayed to watch the England-France game.
Ireland won the title by ten on points difference over England last year, and captain Paul O’Connell said this year’s finish felt better.
“I’ve never seized a trophy in such a bizarre situation,” O’Connell said.
“Fair play to England, they were absolutely incredible. That was probably the performance of the championship.”
Points difference was always going to settle the championship for a third year in a row, and England, Ireland, and Wales were tied at the top in that order, but played in reverse order.
First up in Rome, Wales needed to win by 26 points, and did by 41 in a record 61-20 defeat of Italy.
Second up in Edinburgh, Ireland needed to win by 21, and did by 30 in a record-tying defeat of Scotland.
Those scarcely believable results left England with a huge mountain to climb, and to the credit of the English, they almost touched the summit. Instead, they finished runner-up for a fourth year in a row.
“They probably deserved a share of the spoils,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said, “but there’s incredible relief in our camp.”
O’Connell added: “To win a championship any year is fantastic. I’ve spent a lot of years in close calls, and it’s been a great eight weeks.
“We’d be very proud of what we’ve done in the last eight weeks, in terms of how we’ve addressed certain things in our performance, in attack, defence, and our resolve to come out and produce a good performance like that after losing last week.”
Ireland were on for a rare Grand Slam until they were stopped in their tracks last week by Wales, 23-16. Schmidt said the players were despondent on Monday and Tuesday, but gathered their focus with the Six Nations championship still on the line.
“For us, it’s a championship that we’ll probably have some regrets about, last week,” Schmidt said. “But last week’s second-half performance did set us up, and it was quite similar to our second-half performance this week.”
Ireland’s margin of victory over Scotland equalled their record, tying the 36-6 win in 2003 at Murrayfield.
For England, it was agony after an astonishing game at Twickenham.
“It will go down as one of the great games of rugby,” said Lancaster, speaking around the same time as O’Connell lifted the trophy inside Murrayfield.
“To put it into context,” said a bewildered Lancaster, “we’re sat here disappointed but put 55 points on France.”
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said: “I’m not bitter, but it was an amazing game, very fantastic. At the highest level when you have the opportunities, you need to score. And, again, we were Father Christmas – we missed 15 points in kicks, and it’s difficult to win at Twickenham when you do this.”