March 19, 2000 was the day everything changed for Irish rugby.

The day every fan remembers exactly where they were. Before travelling to France on that sunny spring afternoon seeking a first win in Paris in 28 years, Ireland had become near-perennial northern hemisphere whipping boys, having finishing a miserable decade with a humiliating early World Cup exit.

Then Brian O'Driscoll scored one of the most famous hat tricks in the game and, 14 years on, despite having failed to record another win in France, Ireland are persistent contenders for the RBS 6 Nations title alongside provincial sides which also dominate the club game.

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Today, O'Driscoll, who is regarded as one of the best play-making centres of all time, will be playing his 141st and final Test, as Ireland seek the victory which would clinch the title unless England score an avalanche of tries in Rome. The Irish centre will end his Test career in the Paris arena where he first exploded on to the global stage before becoming the game's most capped internationalist and one of its greatest players.

"I remember just thinking 'anything is possible now'," said Keith Wood, the former Ireland captain, as he recalled O'Driscoll's superb third try while speaking at his former team-mate's testimonial dinner last year. "An awful lot changed from that time."

O'Driscoll had made his Irish debut as a 20-year-old nine months earlier. Expecting to make up the numbers on a Tour to Australia, he instead found himself lining up against his hero, Tim Horan.

A handful of games followed, including the beginning of a first Six Nations campaign which also heralded the emergence of players such as Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer and Shane Horgan, before Ireland headed for Paris.

For Malcolm O'Kelly, who was in the second row that day, what happened next came as little surprise. "His light was already shining. The 1999 World Cup was all about Drico, how we had unearthed this kid. It certainly wasn't out of the blue," he said. "There were holes appearing everywhere but to actually go and do it and put Ireland on the map, it was down to his brilliance."

The masterclass began in the first half when O'Driscoll, who had already made his presence known with a crunching tackle on Philippe Bernat-Salles, was put through by O'Kelly for a relatively simple first try. The Irish trailed by nine points after the break but the skinny, baby-faced O'Driscoll, wearing a jersey which on old YouTube clips appears about two sizes too big, then combined brilliantly with centre partner Rob Henderson to sprint through for his second.

The best was saved for last. With six minutes to go, the ball came loose from an Irish ruck and O'Driscoll scooped it up with such remarkable ease that Emile Ntamack could only watch as the 21-year-old darted through to complete his hat trick.

While it was replacement David Humphries' often forgotten late penalty that actually secured the 27-25 win for Ireland, the match was all about O'Driscoll. The young Dubliner topped news bulletins all evening and newspapers obsessed about the meaning of the hand gesture he made when celebrating his tries. He has retained his box-office appeal ever since.

"People work as hard as him, people are faster, are taller, are stronger, but he just has that little something, that bit of magic, the extra belief to try things others wouldn't dare," said O'Kelly. "What really sets him apart is his mentality. It's very hard to put that in a bottle and replicate it."

O'Driscoll, Ireland's record try scorer with 83 touchdowns, bid an emotional farewell to home fans last week when he contributed another man-of-the-match performance to put his side one win away from only their second title in 29 years.

It would be fitting should the title be clinched in Paris as O'Driscoll bows out, while the match also holds special significance for Gael Fickou. The teenage France centre has emerged as the bright hope for his country during this championship and he is relishing the opportunity to test himself against one of the all-time greats. "He is such a symbol. I can only hope I'll be at his level in 14 years" said Fickou.

n Toby Flood, the former England fly-half, will join Toulouse from next season. The 28-year-old had long been linked with a move from current club Leicester to the Top 14 side, with rumours of his departure seemingly ending his international career earlier this year.