Ireland looked edgy throughout their Triple Crown defeat to Scotland on Saturday, and forward Stephen Ferris admitted afterwards that the Croke Park factor played a part.
The final Six Nations game of the season was also the final rugby international at Croker ahead of the move back to the new Aviva Stadium at Lansdowne Road.
The Irish players desperately wanted to leave GAA headquarters on a high, as Ferris admitted afterwards.
“There was a lot of hype coming into this game and you can’t help but lift the paper and read about it,” said Ferris. “It was a massive day for us and the whole of Ireland but perhaps sometimes you need to distance yourselves from that.
“For me personally there was so much hype about Scotland being the last game at Croke Park that you can try too hard and sometimes that isn’t the best thing to do.
“When you’re on the pitch it’s all guns blazing like every Test match, but before the game we were thinking about the occasion a bit more than we usually would.
“Maybe that impacted our game, maybe it did for mine slightly. That’s the way it was for me and it might be the same for a few of the other players. But that’s experience and it’s in the bank now.”
Ireland ended the season as Six Nations runners-up, but coming a year after the Grand Slam that was no consolation for Ferris.
He added, “Obviously we can’t view this Six Nations as being successful because we haven’t won anything. This is a team that can win trophies and should win trophies.”
Fellow Ulsterman Rory Best concurred with Ferris and admitted to his own part in Ireland’s downfall on a day when seven out of 17 Irish line-outs were stolen by the Scots.
“We wanted to finish off our time at Croke Park with a big result and big performance, winning a Triple Crown,” said the Ulster hooker.
“We obviously fell short and we’re very, very disappointed. Any time there’s a match to be won, especially at home when there’s silverware on the line, we want to win it.”
Coach Declan Kidney was forced to defend his team’s tactics afterwards.
“You’ll never improve as a side unless you try things, but we weren’t trying things for the sake of it,” insisted Kidney. “We knew we had to go after Scotland to try and beat them and it’s vital that we keep trying these things because we won’t beat anybody unless we do.
“First and foremost it was about winning and trying to get a result, but we tried things that didn’t come off. The error count went against us.”
The defeat ensured the feted farewell to Croke Park turned into a damp squib as Kidney readily acknowledged.
He added, “We feel like we’ve let a lot of people down and that’s not a nice feeling. It’s hugely disappointing. I can’t put into words the way we feel. Like everyone else we wanted to leave Croke Park on a good note.”
France guaranteed the Grand Slam with a narrow win over England late on Saturday night and Kidney added, “France have had an exceptional year, but any side can beat any other on any given day.
“That’s the good thing about the Six Nations. Every match is a one-off, and it didn’t come off for us against Scotland.”
Vice captain Paul O’Connell shared the pain of the supporters after the anti-climax at Croker.
O’Connell said, “It’s been a disappointing championship. Two defeats is more than we wanted at the start. We’re an excellent side and we want to win things.
“Unfortunately now we’re coming away empty handed so we’re disappointed with the way it’s gone.”
Ireland will regroup in the summer for the tour to New Zealand and Australia, with the players now back on provincial duty ahead of big Heineken Cup games for Leinster and Munster.
Kidney will have to kick his heels as he awaits the June action and admitted it will be a long, long wait.
“It’s going to be extremely frustrating now because when you lose your last one you have to live with it for two months,” said the Corkman.