'I've loved every minute': Emotional Rory Best hails Joe Schmidt as Ireland careers come to an end in World Cup loss to New Zealand
It's typical of Rory Best - the ultimate leader - that he would take the moment of his retirement to heap praise on somebody else.
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The Banbridge man's senior career came to abrupt end in the Tokyo Stadium on Saturday as the All Blacks ran out deserved 46-14 winners over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
It wasn't the finish the inspirational Ulster and Ireland skipper would have wanted, much less deserved, after a career that yielded 221 caps for Ulster, 124 for his nation and nine over two tours with the British and Irish Lions.
He will go down in history as the captain that led Ireland to their first two victories over the All Blacks, won four Six Nations titles including two Grand Slams and helped Ulster land the Pro12 title in 2006.
After the game, his children Ben, Penny and Richie came down onto the pitch - the last time they will be lifted into their father's arms at the end of a taxing afternoon on the pitch.
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The cameras flocked round the Ireland captain, team-mates lined his way off the pitch and the fans stood to give the reception his 12 years of national service so richly warranted.
The man himself, emotional yet ever humble, was more interested in talking about departing coach Joe Schmidt.
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"I've loved every minute of it," he said, taking a moment to fight back the tears as the fans roared in admiration.
"The crowd have been fantastic. The support I've had from the fans at home and away, my team-mates, the coaching staff and Joe in particular. He brought Irish Rugby and my game to a different level when he came here. A lot of credit and a massive thanks has to go to him. Good luck to Kieran (Read) the All Blacks next week."
In the ITV studio, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, two of Best's predecessors as Ireland skipper, were only too keen to do what Best neglected to, hailing his career, his ability and his legacy in Irish Rugby.
"It's an incredibly emotional time," said O'Driscoll. "Nobody gets to write their exit. Paul O'Connell got stretchered off in his last test.
"The fairytale ending is rare but what an incredible servant he has been over the last 12 years. He led from the front. He's 37 years of age and still going hard, putting in 60 minutes. I can only imagine what sort of shape his body is in. You're playing in the front row for 124 caps. I would imagine it's no easy task. He deserves the send-off that he's getting. It's just a shame it had to be under those circumstances."
Best's stint as Irish leader has involved scrutiny from the Dublin press but, while he admitted to 'difficult' days, O'Connell piled praise on Ulster's treasured son.
"He wasn't a flash player," O'Connell said. "He was kind of an old school hooker. He was a brilliant scrummager, excellent lineout thrower. He was brilliant over the ball at the ruck. He was just a very, very hard forward. It's just so disappointing with this game that they've come up against a phenomenal New Zealand team. It's a really tough way to finish your career."
New Zealand's players joined their Ireland counterparts in Best's guard of honour and, a further sign of his stature across the globe, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen added to the tributes.
"I think Rory and Joe, both of them have been instrumental in changing Ireland to a team which earlier in the year were number one in the world, so a big congratulations to them," he said. "They are both finishing up, probably not the way they wanted to do it, but sport is not fair because they have done a marvellous job."
As to the game itself, Ireland were dominated from the off as New Zealand performed to the peak of their powers.
"Tired, sore, upset," Best said of his immediate emotions after the final whistle. "Right now you focus on just what's gone and we're incredibly disappointed," said Best when he summed up his feelings.
"We've got a lot of big characters in that changing room and it's not often that you get deadly silence. There were some of those big men in tears. That's what happens when everybody puts their heart and soul into something.
"Maybe we have been looking at this for too long and been so focused on it that we forgot to win some of the little battles along the way over the last 12 months.
"Everyone talks about the pressure that's on the All Blacks before quarter-finals. But, when you haven't won one and you feel you have a great coaching set-up and great group of players then maybe you put too much pressure on.
"The boys will look at this and see how they can get better. For this right now, you have to give enormous credit to the All Blacks.
"I'd just like to thank this unbelievable crowd. The Irish as always started off with an incredible atmosphere. They were brilliant."
They were. And for 354 senior appearances for Ulster, Ireland and the Lions, so was Rory Best.
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