The questions were perhaps redundant. What could the shattered All Blacks say after they had left so much on the field in Saturday’s 12-11 Rugby World Cup final loss to South Africa?
Playing more than half the match a man down, New Zealand were a hair’s breadth from snatching the World Cup back from defending champions South Africa, but fell agonisingly short, watching their great rivals move alone at the top of the tree with four titles to their name.
“To come within a whisker of pulling it off… it’s heartbreaking,” New Zealand’s outgoing coach Ian Foster said pitchside at the end of a pulsating and fluctuating clash.
“I’m proud of our guys, to go down to that red card so early and fight our way back and give ourselves a chance is pretty special. I don’t think it went wrong in any clear (way), it was a real arm wrestle, both teams had their moments… I’m incredibly proud of the way we fought.”
It was a titanic battle between the sport’s two heavyweights, and the fight was juddering. Few could have expected New Zealand to come so close when their captain Sam Cane was sent off after half an hour, penalised for a high tackle.
“It’s gut-wrenching for him, frustrating for us,” Foster said.
Gut-wrenching it was and Cane was distraught.
“Extremely gutted,” he said, seemingly hollow with disappointment as he stood expressionless on the side of the Stade de France pitch as the Springboks celebrated.
“First of all that the guys had to play with 14 men for the last 50-odd minutes… I thought the courage they showed out here tonight was incredible, the whole team are absolute warriors.”
Thirty minutes later, once the defeat had sunk in a little more, Cane remained inconsolable.
“There’s so much hurt right now it’s hard to put into words… hard to explain right now,” he said, appearing to be on the verge of tears.
“It’s hard because you are feeling so much hurt, but I am proud of this group who fought back and gave themselves a chance.”
Foster tried not to be drawn on the red card, or on refereeing decisions. He didn’t want to find excuses or point any fingers. Yet every question felt like a jab at a bruise or a pick at a scab.
Instead, he warmed as he reflected on his time as All Blacks coach. “I’d say there’s a lot more ups than downs to be fair,” he dead-panned, providing a rare gulp of oxygen in the gloom. “It’s (been) a privilege. It’s not something that you hope you get, and it’s a privilege. I’ve been privileged to be part of a special group of people.”
When asked what had been the highlight of his time leading the All Blacks, his answer drew a line under the night’s heartbreak.
“Probably today,” he said. “We lost. But what you want as a coach is to get your team on the big stage and to have your team put their best foot forward.
“This group is very proud to be All Blacks, very proud to play for their country and have worked incredibly hard to get here. While I am so proud of what we did and how we worked we have to give it to South Africa, they are a quality team. It’s special for them but it equally hurts for us.”