Alan Quinlan: History eludes Ireland in South Africa but they must now grasp the nettle
Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30
Back to earth with a thump. Even without the breath-thieving altitude, this has been a tour of incredible highs and lows.
Even on Sunday morning, it is impossible to gulp in all the incredible positives that have emerged in the past month without swallowing a decent dollop of regret over what might have been.
If Joe Schmidt had been handed this scenario before the series, would he have taken it? A 2-1 series defeat but the chance to come so close to snatching it? One score? One phase? One play? One moment?
He would. I would. Most Irish supporters would. Except now that we see the manner of how the series unfolded, our perspective shifts.
Ireland won a battle but ultimately they lost the war. They may have begun to unlock the future potential for winning on the biggest stages of all but that won't help them now.
Quite simply, none of these players will ever again get a chance to achieve such a potential landmark in South Africa. It was right in front of them but, as if in the blink of an eye, it's gone.
The players know this. To a man, they were deflated and disappointed. They knew the magnitude of the achievement that lay before them - that's why the regrets will weigh down their luggage as they head on their holidays.
Pressure does things to you when it presses hard. You stiffen up. The joints tighten. Passes that normally are out in front fall millimetres behind. That's the place Ireland were in on Saturday.
Ireland had the chance to win this game, win this series. They had the ball. They had the control. But even though they took nice off-the-top ball from the last lineout, they went into their shell a bit. One-out runners. Easy options. So comfortable to defend.
Perhaps they were conscious of the chances they had missed earlier. The one before half-time will disrupt the first couple of nights' holiday sleep for sure. If Luke Marshall makes that pass to Keith Earls…But JP Pietersen scores seconds later for a 14-point swing.
So that plays on your mind. But then champions don't let things like that affect them. If this was the All Blacks, they would have loved the chance to put away a 'Boks side if you threw them an attacking lineout with just minutes on the clock.
We've seen what they can do to us in Dublin in the final play. They're ruthless. For all the positive developments on this tour - and there have been many - we're not there. Yet.
The World Cup showed the bar which has been set for this group of Ireland players and it will not change regardless of who is coaching the All Blacks. And the determination to reach it should not change regardless of who is coaching Ireland.
You could see the glimpses of a different future unfold from the opening bars of Ireland's Call.
Matt Healy was winning his first cap. Eoin Reddan was hoping to win his final cap. Both men clutched each other tightly at the anthems. The old and new. Past and future.
And Ireland played with a nod to the future. We saw the benefit of picking two footballers at 10 and 12.
Our scrum struggled all day though and, apart from not taking our chances, Schmidt may regret the delay in turning to the bench.
This tour - and this season - has demonstrated that Ireland's player base has broadened. We started losing collisions, Murray was having to forage and Jackson was being forced to kick.
It could, of course, have been different. Glen Jackson should have showed a red card.
Regardless of my opinion, though, it is the refereeing inconsistency which is really annoying supporters.
But it's gone now. And so is the series. Ireland achived a notable first by winning a test on South African soil. But history has passed this Ireland team by. Only they can determine what influence it can have on their future.