TOKYO, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Ireland captain Rory Best struggled to hold back tears as he bade farewell to rugby following his side’s 46-14 defeat at the hands of a rampant New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at Tokyo Stadium on Saturday.
The 37-year-old Best, who made his test debut off the bench against the All Blacks in 2005, announced in April he would retire from professional rugby at the end of Ireland’s World Cup campaign.
The hooker refused to countenance the idea of his career ending in the build-up to the quarter-final, but the emotion was etched across his face when the Irish fans cheered him as the teams lined up before kickoff.
Best’s career, however - and the Ireland tenure of coach Joe Schmidt - did not end with a fairytale finish as the All Blacks went up a gear in their World Cup defence and kept the Irish pinned inside their own half for much of the game to advance to a semi-final against England.
“I’d just like to thank this unbelievable crowd, the Irish as always, it started off with an incredible atmosphere, they were brilliant,” Best said after the final whistle.
“The support that I’ve got from home, from the fans when we’re at home, when we’re away, my teammates, the coaching staff and probably in particular (Ireland coach) Joe as well, who’s moving on.
“I think he brought Irish rugby and my game in particular to a different level when he came here... a lot of credit goes to him and just a massive thanks to him.”
Best, who played 124 tests for Ireland, with 102 as a starter, also appeared in more than 200 games for his Irish province Ulster and was roared off the field when he was substituted after 62 minutes on Saturday.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” he added.
Best received an honour guard from both the All Blacks and Ireland players after the final whistle.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read wished him well in his retirement.
“I’d just like to echo what the crowd said about Rory, his fantastic career,” he said.
“Mate, you’ve been a legend of the game so thank you very much for all you’ve given to this game.”
New Zealander Schmidt is also leaving after six years with the side during which he led them to four Six Nations titles, their first series victory in Australia in almost 40 years and their first two wins against the All Blacks.
Schmidt has already said he would not be seeking a coaching job for at least the next year as he spends time with his family, but was disappointed that the side appeared to have peaked 12 months too early.
“We’ve been a little bit flat all season, which is disappointing,” Schmidt said. “We were great last year and we’ve just maybe come off the top of that and haven’t quite been where we wanted to be all year.
“I’d just like to thank my players, and I’d like to thank these supporters... it’s been a privilege for me.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; editing by Tony Lawrence