Sean O’Brien spoke of the need for Ireland to grow up. Paul O’Connell talked of tears in the dressing room.
Brian O’Driscoll didn’t need to say anything at all – the look on his face at the end of a 24-22 defeat to New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday said it all.
Not for the first time, Ireland was beaten by the All Blacks right at the death in a game that defied all the odds for long periods but ended with the same predictable result.
When tries from Conor Murray, Rory Best and Rob Kearney sent Ireland rocketing to a 19-0 lead after just 18 minutes, a packed Lansdowne Road dared to believe.
Even when a Julian Savea try and the conversion from Aaron Cruden threatened to spoil the party before the break, Ireland were still value for their 22-7 interval lead.
A first ever win in 28 attempts against the Kiwis, a first win in 108 years against the All Blacks looked oh so possible as the Aviva crowd caught their breath at halftime.
Alas the New Zealanders are world champions for a reason. Self-belief is their middle name, and they never looked ready to surrender in Sunday’s epic encounter.
They held Ireland scoreless in those frantic 40 minutes, scored a 53rd minute penalty from Cruden and then a converted Ben Franks try in the 65th minute to leave just five points in it, 22-17.
Jonathon Sexton, risked for this game despite a hamstring injury, had a chance to move Ireland eight points ahead but screwed his 74th minute penalty wide.
That was all the invite the World Cup winners needed. They pressed and pressed and pressed against a brave Irish defense for the final six minutes – and they got their reward in the very last minute when Ryan Crotty went over in the corner for the final try of the game.
Cruden missed the conversion, but the Irish forwards were adjudged to have rushed him ahead of his kick and he was awarded a second opportunity to add the two points, win the match and end the 2013 season with a 100 percent record for the tourists. He didn’t miss.
The devastation on the faces of the Ireland players and fans was complete. It will take a long time for all concerned to recover from the near thing heartache as Carlow flanker O’Brien, the Man of the Match, acknowledged afterwards.
“Lads will have to have a good look at their game, what we did well and didn’t do so well. I think we can improve on that performance,” O’Brien said.
“We were obviously annoyed after the Australia defeat a week earlier and that fueled the fire, along with the day that was in it -- history and what not -- but I think it’s time the lads grew up and know what’s expected when they put on an Irish jersey.
“If we bring that intensity and work-rate that we had at the start of the game into the Six Nations, then we’ll be in a good place. We’ve set standards in the past and this is one of those, but we’ve to make sure we kick on from there and make sure that’s there every day in the Six Nations.”
Like O’Brien, Gordon D’Arcy believes Ireland can take positives into the Six Nations next February despite the latest negative result against the All-Blacks.
D’Arcy, like O’Driscoll set to retire at the end of the season, declared, “I don’t think we have them in the next year and a half, so it probably was my last go at them. It’s a pretty horrific one to take, I was broken by it I think.
“I’ve been involved in other games like that, but this is probably a low point in my career.
“If we don’t build on that and it doesn’t become the base for the Six Nations, then what did we achieve? Nothing.
“We talk a lot about wanting to move forward, but sometimes we get in our own way and we pull out one performance and we’re perceived as not being consistent enough.
“There is definitely a level of progression from these three autumn games, but this is only a positive if after five games in the Six Nations then we walk away from that with five consistent performances, and hopefully a trophy.”
Try scorer Rob Kearney rejected any notion that Ireland’s players are psychologically beaten before they even play top sides like the All Blacks.
Kearney insisted, “When we tell you that when we play our best rugby we can beat any team in the world, that’s not a party-line that we trot out, that’s what we genuinely believe.
“We played well today for 50 to 60 minutes, and we probably could have done a little bit more at the end. I haven’t learned a huge amount from that 80 minutes: I know what we can do as a team when we fulfill our potential.
“I know we can beat the best teams in the world, and we came pretty close on Sunday.”
Kearney also had sympathy for his former Leinster teammate Sexton after that missed penalty attempt in the 74th minute.
He added, “If we got that penalty, it’s an eight-point game and difficult to come back. It was a lifeline for them.
“But obviously as players we will never, ever criticize our kickers, because they have the hardest job of all. And it was a massive pressure kick for him, and he was carrying a bit of a knock too.
“Had he got that kick it might have been different, and it was a lifeline for them. But despite missing the kick we should still have come through with the result.”
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