Heaven knows the whirlwind of emotions which were going through Joe Schmidt’s mind in the aftermath of this third Test and second one that got away.
The series and its nail-biting decider had come at the end of the most exacting season any Irish squad had ever known and the manner of the defeat had probably left all concerned, including Schmidt, utterly drained.
All of this, and more, has to be considered when the latest question as to his future were put to him in a quiet corridor in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium about an hour after it had all ended. There are contracts on offer from both the IRFU and the New Zealand Rugby Union, whose chief executive Steve Tew had been on his case for years and on Friday again referenced Schmidt as a putative All Blacks coach come 2019.
Asked if this series had made his decision more difficult, he said: “Yeah, for all sorts of reasons. It’s not really my decision to be honest. I’ve got a young fella struggling at the moment,” he said, in reference to his unwell son Luke. “That’s just the way it is,” he added, struggling for words and becoming a little emotional.
One has the increasing impression that family circumstances, after a decade in Europe, may contribute to him returning permanently to New Zealand, where he will discuss his future with his family while on holidays there over the next three weeks.
If he then declares next season to be his last with Ireland, it would clearly be with a heavy heart and even more regrets, because almost everything about this tour would make him want to stay on beyond the end of next season.
“Yeah, look, you cannot fault the work ethic of these guys. It’s huge. I’d be lying if I thought that we were suddenly world beaters. I’m not going to claim that we’re looking to aim up and take over the world of rugby. We’re just going to try and roll our sleeves up and try to profit from the investment that the last three weeks has been, and we’ll see what happens.”
“The last time I felt this similar disappointment was when we didn’t get the win against the All Blacks, when we had a similar lead,” he admitted.
"We came out and we won the Six Nations post that. I think players learn from that. They think 'hang on a minute, we can actually foot it'."
Recalling how their hopes of winning the series had be "written off" before the tour, Schmidt noted how their full-back resources gradually diminished to the point that Keith Earls filled the role, he said that "to talk about those [injured] players really detracts from the wholehearted commitment and the 'learnings' that we've gained by these young guys being thrust into an environment that's relatively hostile."
In that sense, he agreed, the tour was in credit. “If you’d said to me before we came here ‘look, there’ll be three six-point results and you’ll get one of them’ I would have grabbed it. I’m not sure the players would have, because they are so committed to trying to justify the support they get. They sense the support that is out there. Even coming out of our hotel the amount of support that you get really does encourage to keep going, and they kept going.”
“They did a super job, and I think they’ll learn from it, but you can’t spend too much time learning. You’ve got to get to the level of mastering very, very quickly in this environment because you don’t get too many windows to play Test rugby in a season and you’ve got to optimise every window you get.”
He paid tribute to the retiring Eoin Reddan.
“I was just willing the lads to get over. You know, you don’t get the fairytale ending, but what a hell of a story! A kid who left Munster to get more game time, went to Connacht as a 71 kilo whippet, has won trophies all over the place, is the consummate professional, commits to the team and the greater good well beyond himself. He’s a super fella. Aoife, Tom, Evey – they’re a super family. The environment in our team is a fairly tight-knit group so Reddser will be a real loss for us.”
All in all, he said it had been a tough season, which he highlighted by comparing the "fully fit team" barring Jared Payne which dismantled France in the World Cup to the one which finished this series. But this had, he said, meant five more new caps on this tour, and further investment in the likes of Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Jordi Murphy, Ultan Dillane, Finlay Bealham.
"It's great that they've had those opportunities, because if it happens in 2019 that I'm involved or whoever is involved, we don't want to be in the same situation where we're so reliant on our real feature players. Now I can tell you that any team is reliant on feature players," he countered, citing the Wallabies of this June window compared to the team featuring Matt Giteau, David Pocock and others which beat England in the World Cup.
“It’s a very touchy equilibrium between what can be best delivered and when you suddenly lose that experience and you become a little bit vulnerable.
“But I didn’t think we showed too much vulnerability and I think that’s a credit to the players and what they’ve invested in the last three weeks, and hopefully that is something we can profit from in the future.”