Choking back his personal disappointment at throwing away what his Ireland team-mates all regarded as a golden opportunity, Rory Best yesterday backed Wales to reach their first World Cup final at the expense of their Six Nations rivals France next Saturday in Auckland.
The 29-year-old Ulster hooker believes Warren Gatland's resurgent side showed that they have all the tools to progress to the Eden Park final during their titanic 22-10 victory here on Saturday.
"Credit to Wales, they came at us and didn't let us settle or gather breath. They were deserving winners," he said. "Good luck to Wales next weekend, they thoroughly deserve to be there.
"There's no doubt Wales can reach the final. The beauty of this side of the draw is that it's very much the Six Nations – and Wales have shown in the recent past that they can win Grand Slams. That's basically what they have to do now to get to the final."
In public Ireland said throughout their stay in New Zealand that they were never looking beyond the next match, but Best revealed that privately they were intent on lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. Beating Australia to win their group, and thus earn a berth in the supposedly easier northern hemisphere half of the quarter-final draw only strengthened their conviction that this was their time.
In an honest assessment of Ireland's agonising departure, Best admitted the team will take home special memories from the hordes of supporters who followed them across New Zealand – but that these are not enough. "The bottom line is that we travelled here to win the World Cup. It will take a while to get over this. There's no doubt this was a fantastic chance," said Best.
"We all knew that topping our group would turn it into knockout Six Nations rugby. We knew we had the ability to win that side of the draw, but we also knew we had to turn up on the day.
"We knew deep down we hadn't really performed on the big stage before and this was the time to do it. We got to the quarter-final confident that we could win, but failed to achieve that."
But neutral observers found it hard to be too critical of an Ireland team that contributed so fully to a remarkable quarter-final between two of the World Cup's form sides. When the time came, Ireland failed to turn pressure into points against a ferocious Welsh defence. Facing men who displayed a maturity and composure that belied their lack of experience, Ireland turned in their most error-strewn performance of the tournament.
"We're bitterly disappointed. Credit to Wales, but for us the emotion is very raw. It's just one of those things unfortunately," Best said. "It's a team game and we're all in this together. We've had a fantastic time in New Zealand.
"There's been a great feeling throughout the squad while we've been here and we're all very disappointed to be going home. We came up short here. We wanted to get into the last four. It was something we wanted badly, but we haven't managed it."