LONDON (Reuters) - The Six Nations Championship delivered in spades once again as Ireland claimed the title with a nerve-shredding 22-20 win over France in the final match to clinch the trophy on points difference from England.
Fifteen games of high intensity boiled up into a fitting finale as Brian O'Driscoll bowed out of the international stage by helping Ireland secure only their second victory in France in 42 years.
England earlier beat Italy 52-11 in Rome but it was not enough to deny the Irish, who flirted with defeat in Paris before closing out a famous win.
Wales crushed Scotland 51-3 in their final match, the champions of the last two years finishing in style after a difficult campaign, although they were helped significantly by the sending-off of Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg. It was Wales' biggest-ever tournament win - topping their 104-year best against France - and Scotland's worst defeat.
Overall, however, there were few mismatches as once again, the Six Nations bristled with emotion, drama and tension.
England fought back to engineer a winning position in their first game in France, only to be denied by a brilliant French move in the dying minutes which culminated in a try by Yoann Huget.
Stuart Lancaster's team took the loss on the chin and responded with a solid 20-0 win in Scotland before making the most of home advantage to see off Ireland 13-10 and Wales 29-18.
Fifty points in Italy was a good way to end the tournament and although Ireland's win in Paris deprived them of the Six Nations title, England will take solace from a Triple Crown and a powerful base from which to build their 2015 World Cup campaign.
Scotland endured another dismal tournament, battered by Ireland and England before a morale-boosting last-gasp win in Italy and a painful home loss to France preceded the humiliation by Wales.
Warren Gatland's Welsh side experienced a difficult tournament, the pressure of being twice defending champions proving too much.
They showed signs of form with an emphatic win over France and a mauling of Scotland but heavy defeats by Ireland and England showed that an ageing team may be struggling ahead of next year's World Cup where they face pool matches against England and Australia at Twickenham.
Italy lost all five matches for the first time in five years and although they went toe to toe with Scotland before losing to a last-minute drop goal, their routine second-half implosions show that they are still struggling to really compete with the powers of northern hemisphere rugby.
At the end of another compelling tournament, Ireland and England are in good shape to mount a challenge in next year's World Cup. Wales, France, Scotland and Italy are not.
(Editing by Mitch Phillips)