LONDON France secured the perfect boost in World Cup year by retaining their Six Nations title in a dramatic end to the tournament on Saturday, snatching the championship from Ireland on points difference.
Nerves were frayed at the Stade de France where, after Ireland had ruthlessly crushed Italy 51-24 in Rome, Bernard Laporte's side needed to defeat Scotland by at least 24 points.
France, seeking a third title in four years, duly overcame the Scots 46-19 but the result failed to reflect the drama, the World Cup hosts only securing the championship with an Elvis Vermeulen try as the seconds ran out.
The try, awarded after a long adjudication by the video referee, was greeted by jubilant Gallic cheers, coach Laporte punching the air with both fists.
"It was a great day for rugby," said Laporte. "It was definitely our best match in the tournament and certainly our best match in quite some time," added the coach, who had long since departed the Stade de France by the team his players were awarded their medals in front of a handful of officials.
It was the second time in this season's tournament that France had dashed Irish hopes. A last-minute try from wing Vincent Clerc in their meeting at Croke Park on February 11 handed France a 20-17 victory.
With the trophy being hastily flown to the French capital from an unknown destination in Europe, France had two hours to wait for confirmation they were champions as attention switched to Cardiff where England had to beat Wales by an improbable 57 points to snatch the trophy.
But the world champions once again proved less than resilient on their travels, losing 27-18 in a Welsh victory that condemned Scotland to the wooden spoon.
France and Ireland both finished with four wins and eight points, Laporte's side having a better match points difference of four. England, who had handed France their only defeat of the tournament at Twickenham last week, had to settle for third, followed by Italy, Wales and Scotland.
Ireland head towards the World Cup later in the year in good shape, underlining their attacking prowess by running in eight tries against Italy.
Girvan Dempsey and Denis Hickie scored two tries apiece as Ireland regained the verve missing from their narrow win over Scotland last weekend. But in a bid to tot up the points, the Irish lapsed in defence and two late Italian tries proved costly.
"It's hard to take, but that's sport. We could wallow in self-pity now, but I don't think that would be the right thing to do," coach Eddie O'Sullivan told reporters.
"We've won four out of five matches, played some great rugby and scored some great tries. We have to kick on from here."
England, who headed to the Millennium stadium with a record of just three away wins since their World Cup triumph in 2003, found Wales in fighting mood and desperate to secure a first win in the 2007 tournament.
They got it thanks to an inspired display from stand-in flyhalf James Hook who scored 22 points.
"We are a work in progress, it's our fist Six Nations together and it's a tough tournament," coach Gareth Jenkins told a news conference.
"We've been on the wrong end in four games but we've learnt lessons and brought them all to this game today. We are delighted to end the season with a win. It was a special place here today, that support there helped us to a great result."