Wales captain Sam Warburton said just one mistake caused his injury-blitzed side’s World Cup quarter-final defeat by South Africa.
Warburton refused to accept that the absence of casualties ranging from Leigh Halfpenny to Liam Williams had undermined their cause.
“I feel we are going out too early,” said Warburton after the 23-19 defeat at Twickenham on Saturday. “Games are won on individual moments and we made just one mistake at the end.”
“It’s just sinking in that we’re going home tomorrow.”
The Welsh led 19-18 heading into the final five minutes and were on course to repeat their run to the semi-finals of the World Cup in New Zealand four years ago.
South Africa, however, snatched victory when captain Fourie du Preez’s break off the back of a scrum saw the scrum-half go over on the blindside for a match-clinching try.
Wales’ campaign was beset by injuries, with full-back Halfpenny and scrum-half Rhys Webb ruled out before the tournament started, while several more backs then fell by the wayside, including Williams this week.
But Warburton said: “We don’t blame the injuries for going out. We were pretty lucky that we could play in a quarter-final with our full forward pack.”
The openside flanker then highlighted the performances of 20-year-old centre Tyler Morgan, reserve scrum-half Gareth Davies and New Zealand-born full-back Gareth Anscombe as encouraging signs for Wales’ future.
“Considering you have got Tyler coming in, and he still does a great job, it’s great going forward.
“Gareth Davies got a few tries and him and Tyler and Anscombe are great going forward.”
Four years ago, Warburton was sent off as Wales were edged out 9-8 by France in a thrilling semi-final in Auckland.
– Angry Gatland –
At the aged of 27, he could well have a couple more World Cups left in him.
But for the likes of 34-year-old veteran prop Gethin Jenkins, Saturday’s loss was probably their final World Cup appearance.
“No-one knows who is going to be around in four years’ time,” said Warburton. “I feel for guys like Gethin. You try your best for players like that.”
Meanwhile coach Warren Gatland turned on one reporter when asked to explain his feelings.
“Sum up my emotions? That’s a dumb question. How do you think we are? We’re absolutely gutted,” Gatland said.
“The guys put their bodies on the line, gave everything. That’s all we can ask of them but we weren’t good enough to hold on for 80 minutes.
“Credit to South Africa, they stayed in the game but we’re very disappointed.”
Wales scored a first-half try when Davies was sent in by Dan Biggar after the fly-half’s excellent kick and chase.
Biggar himself kicked Wales’ remaining 14 points to leave the Welsh on the brink of just their third victory in 31 Tests against South Africa.
But they gave away several breakdown penalties, with Springbok fly-half Handre Pollard kicking 18 points before du Preez’s try put the result beyond doubt.
“From an effort point of view, we have no regrets,” said Warburton.
“But 12 points in the first half after we gave away four penalties, all when we weren’t under very much pressure, for me those were the most crucial points we gave away.”
Wales came through the so-called ‘Pool of Death’, beating hosts England 28-25 in a Twickenham thriller before losing 15-6 to fellow last-eight qualifiers Australia.
“Wales can be very proud of these players,” said Gatland. “Coming out of that group, which was so tough, set us up pretty nicely for what we knew was going to be a tough game.
“They’ve given 100 percent, we saw that today, they’ve spent themselves, so I’m very proud of what they’ve delivered.”