Teary-eyed Ireland captain Johnny Sexton reflected on a “gutting” end to his glittering career following a heartbreaking World Cup exit at the hands of New Zealand.
Andy Farrell’s class of 2023 were bidding to make history in Paris by becoming the first Irish team to reach the last four of the tournament.
But the world’s top-ranked team trailed for most of an enthralling contest before falling agonisingly short as their quarter-final curse continued with a 28-24 loss.
Veteran fly-half Sexton, who travelled to France with ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup before retirement, tipped his team-mates to come back stronger in his absence during an emotional post-match press conference.
“The last couple of years have definitely been, in a green jersey anyway, the most enjoyable of my career. Definitely,” said Sexton.
“The group, the way Faz (Farrell) leads us with the other coaches, everyone runs into camp and never wants to leave.
“It’s an incredible place to be and that’s what I’ll miss the most. Going to work every day with those guys, but I’m just grateful as well.
“You can’t be 38 and sit here giving out too much. I’ve had lots of ups and downs in my career, lots of injuries, so I’ll probably reflect more over the next couple of weeks, take time off and spend it with my family and see what happens.”
Sexton, the 2018 world player of the year, bows out with 118 caps and 1,108 points, having surpassed Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s record scorer earlier in the competition.
Speaking of the defeat, he said: “It’s gutting, isn’t it? It’s small margins and that’s sport. That’s life. It’s unfortunate, but this group will bounce back.
“They are an incredible bunch led by the man beside me (Farrell). It’s the best group I have ever been a part of. Bar none.
“These guys will go on and achieve great things and I’ll be sitting in the stand having a pint like you lads.”
Scores from native Kiwis Bundee Aki and Jamison Gibson-Park and a penalty try helped keep Ireland within touching distance for the duration of a tense encounter.
However, three-time champions New Zealand underlined their rugby pedigree, with Leicester Fainga’anuku, Ardie Savea and Will Jordan each crossing to pave the way for a nail-biting triumph.
Head coach Farrell revealed veteran wing Keith Earls will also retire as the curtain came down on the current era.
“The standards have been immense over the last four years, the players that we’ve used in that four-year cycle have been a joy to work with,” he said.
“And not just that, their connection with the fans, it seemed like it’s all one big family.
“I’m unbelievably proud to be associated with it all. I think the sad thing for us now is that for this group it’s probably the end.
“Obviously it is for Johnny and Keith Earls is going to retire as well, so things are going to change. Mick Kearney our manager is going to finish up as well.
“Over the next 24 hours, it’s time to make sure that we get a smile back on our faces as soon as we possibly can and celebrate what has been some unbelievable careers and what they have done for Irish rugby. It’s important to us, that.”
Ireland desperately pushed for a late twist to prolong their campaign and 17-match winning run but ultimately ran out of steam to suffer a first defeat since the opening match of last summer’s stunning Test series victory in New Zealand.
It could have been a different outcome had replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher not been held up on the line 10 minutes from time.
“Ifs, buts and maybes and all that,” said Farrell. “But at the end of the day it was two good teams out there playing some outstanding rugby, and unfortunately for us we came out on the wrong side of the score.
“Sport can be cruel sometimes I suppose, that’s why we love it so much.
“We want to congratulate New Zealand on a fantastic performance, it was a fantastic game to be part of, it was probably fitting of a final.”
New Zealand, who had Aaron Smith and Codie Taylor sin-binned, will face Argentina in the semi-finals.
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster: “This is a special day for us. Sometimes the sweetest victories are when your opposition plays very well and tests you to the limit.
“At the end of the day, we played a lot of that game with 14 players. And we looked in control of it and it felt good.”