Why can't Ireland get over the line?
Irish display suggests they're good enough... but not for long enough
IRELAND'S biggest challenge is not to discover the reasons why they came so close to beating the All Blacks. This they already know. Instead, Ireland's biggest challenge will be to uncover why they lost.
What else lurked within that prevented Ireland from taking those fateful, final steps into the zone that would guarantee victory?
Ultimately, Ireland have only one prism through which to analyse Sunday's performance – as the losing side.
"Would a draw have been better?" mused Gordon D'Arcy. "I don't know. Probably not. We still had thrown away a 20-point lead. Not scoring in the second half killed us."
Ireland failed to score after the 33rd minute on Sunday, exactly what happened against France last March. Then, they escaped with a draw.
After going 27 points up against Wales in February, Ireland declared their innings in the 42nd minute; the Welsh were unlucky not to get closer than the resultant eight points.
On Sunday, the fortress could not be held for Ireland's minds were elsewhere. Once Ireland had forged into their impressive lead, they inevitably became preoccupied with the bigger picture.
They became result-focused, not detail-focused, a complete reversal of the intense momentum that had fuelled every momentous collision and piece of skill in the opening half.
The first worrying signs were present even before the break, when Conor Murray and Brian O'Driscoll needlessly kept the ball alive in their own half before Johnny Sexton authoritatively killed the pill.
In the second half's first scrum, Ireland needlessly delayed the put-in; it was an introduction of fatal hesitation that would lethally wound them in the game's dramatic denouement.
However, to claim Ireland "lost" the game would be a stretch too far and a denial of the wondrous authority demonstrated by New Zealand in their manufacturing of the winning try.
If Ryan Crotty's was a walk-in score, Ireland could claim to have lost it; yet New Zealand were offered the most unlikeliest of chances to win. They are the only side who could have taken it.
It was rugby rope-a-dope and nobody in the world knows that game better than the men in black.
The longer Ireland's minds became scrambled by a preoccupation with the scoreboard, the more their actions began to be defined by outcome. Imperceptibly, a chasm began to grow between the mind and the body.
No one player was to blame, it was a collective deficit in physical and mental execution, critically in those final minutes, against a team who are the world's best in both these departments.
If Ireland's second-half mindset was, predominantly, a role reversal of what had preceded it, then it was also a stark contrast to the muscle memory that continues to propel the All Blacks to unprecedented highs.
New Zealand, despite making a host of errors in the first half, remained true to their process throughout. It doesn't matter whether it is the eighth minute or 81st or if they are 19-0 behind or winning 19-0.
The execution of their match-winning try may seem extraordinary to us mere mortals. Yet, for these players, it is rudimentary. It is demanded by each player of himself and it is to this level of detached, clinical awareness that Ireland must aspire.
Last weekend identified once more that the game here has the quality and strength in depth to compete on the global stage. The appaling vista for Irish rugby is that it hasn't been able to do this consistently for some time at international level, the brief Grand Slam interlude aside.
Ireland must look within themselves for something other than fear to motivate them or must they always wait to dolefully bend the knee at the stage Oirish label of the underdog?
"That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?" Rob Kearney (pictured) also asked.
The past has offered no convincing proof that Ireland have ever had the answer. The future must.
Ireland's greatest challenge now is to forge a hardened mentality, one mined from the same depths which produced Sunday's performance – this squad have always known what lies within themselves.
The pertinent point is that Ireland must now demand of themselves a consistent, minimum level of acceptable performance – both physically and technically.
Producing intensity against the All Blacks is one thing, but can Ireland reproduce such passion and precision against Scotland?
It may seem a fatuous suggestion but the recent history of the fixture would serve to indicate that Ireland have been more insipid than inspirational.
That says it all about the recent history of this international team and why Sunday was such a gloriously isolated high watermark.
Now it must become a watershed. Ireland's attitude must change from within.
It was the All Blacks' self-motivated aura, their inordinate mental strength, which was the key to them eking out the seemingly impossible result.
It is not that they feel they are invincible. It is just that everyone else thinks they are.
It is now time for Ireland to create an aura of their own.
An aura that rejects the mediocrity so often witnessed by Irish supporters in recent times and embraces nothing less than a commitment to minimum standards of performance.
This highly motivated squad owe that much to themselves and their supporters.