As the clock ticked past 7.35pm in Yokohama, Kieran Read, Steve Hansen and Ian Foster filed in to front the inquisition; skipper first, blood now wiped from above his right eye.
The head coach came next, his shirt rumpled and tie well-loosened as if to give himself more room to breathe.
The assistant coach came last; three bearers of bad news in black and white.
They were here, in front of the world’s media, to explain as best they could what happened – why the defending champions could look so good against Ireland in a World Cup quarter-final one week and so poor against England in a semifinal the next.
And on the whole, they did well over the next 14 minutes. They were honest, they were hurting and there were no excuses. Just about everyone could see they were beaten by a better team on the night but that wouldn’t have made it any easier to stomach.
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Read looked badly shaken; he had that thousand-yard stare and glassy-eyed look that will take many of us back to a young man in a similar position in Cardiff in 2007 – Richie McCaw, a relatively inexperienced skipper that used the pain of the quarter-final loss to France that night to forge himself into a harder and more demanding leader. Two World Cup triumphs followed.
But Read will never get that chance. For Read, his 126th test was his first World Cup defeat. It was Foster’s first, too. Read is finished with the All Blacks after Friday’s play-off for what is effectively this World Cup’s second loser. Foster wouldn’t have been thinking about his future but it might enter his thoughts over the next week.
The point is, the pain was real. Read, a proud and good man who committed himself utterly to peaking at this tournament after major back surgery, looked on the point of tears, the lump in his throat growing by the minute.
And so that may explain in part what happened next from Hansen as he responded to a relatively mild question on behalf of Read on his captain’s 34th birthday.
It probably needs to be put into context because the social media reaction which has lit a fire under newsrooms in New Zealand, Ireland and the United Kingdom wasn’t, from where I was sitting, a fair reflection of what happened. The hints at an implied threat, in particular, are out of line.
Question, from Newshub’s Andrew Gourdie to Read: “Steve mentioned before that ‘we needed to get hungry and desperate before it gets too late’; from your point of view and the players’ point of view, I suppose, did the players turn up with the right attitude tonight?”
Read talked about how hard his team worked to stay in the game after conceding early. How they hung in there and tried everything to no avail. He finished: “It’s pretty gutting. When it doesn’t go your way it’s a hard thing to take. I know that we’re all hurting.”
And here’s Hansen: “I’d just like to clear that up too because I think that’s a pretty disrespectful question to suggest the All Blacks turned up not being hungry. They’re desperate to win the game. Because I’ve asked them at halftime to get hungrier doesn’t mean to say they didn’t turn up to be hungry. There’s a big difference and if you want to spend some time outside I’ll give you a rugby education on that one.
“But to turn up and say an All Blacks team turns up to a semifinal of a Rugby World Cup with the amount of ability and history that it has behind it… if that’s not hungry – that’s a pretty average question, I reckon.”
It wasn’t Hansen’s finest moment, as he may admit on reflection.
But he appeared genuinely concerned for Read and it was a defence of his skipper as much as anything.
Hansen wasn’t offering to take Gourdie, an experienced professional, outside as such.
He just wanted to make a point that perhaps no one on the other side of the table knew how that trio, and in particular Read, was feeling.
Like a few things that went wrong for the All Blacks last night, it was probably a case of poor execution rather than poor intention.