Iain Henderson insists Ireland are heading in the right direction under head coach Andy Farrell, despite their Guinness Six Nations title hopes being wiped out after just two games.
A first home defeat to tournament favourites France in a decade condemned the Irish to successive losses at the start of a Six Nations campaign for the first time.
No team has ever recovered from that predicament to win the championship, meaning Ireland are now almost certainly playing only for pride.
Lock Henderson, who captained his country in Sunday’s 15-13 reversal against Les Bleus after coming off the bench in the opening weekend loss to Wales, says the camp remains united behind the Farrell project.
“We’re definitely seeing progress. Everyone is striving for it, everyone is working real hard. There is a huge amount of frustration,” said the 28-year-old, who required stitches during the game following a nasty clash of heads with team-mate Cian Healy.
“We’re definitely seeing guys putting in the time, everyone is trying their best to produce this progress on the pitch but it’s that last couple of inches, that last wee bit that we need to see, just to push it over the line.
“Speaking in terms I know, you get up into the opposition’s 22 and it’s that last couple of metres that are extremely difficult to get.
Not the result we all wanted, but we’ll keep working hard to finish the #GuinnessSixNations strongly ☘️
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 14, 2021
“We’re working hard, no-one is going to give up – whether it’s coaching staff or players – to get this.
“We’ve had two games this last couple of weeks and both of them could very easily have gone the other way and we would be sitting here with a completely different mentality.”
Ronan Kelleher’s maiden international try helped keep depleted Ireland in contention following scores either side of half-time from France pair Charles Ollivon and Damian Penaud.
But the French defended stoutly for the final 20 minutes at the Aviva Stadium to preserve their slender lead and move top of the table.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 14, 2021
Henderson led the team after influential pair Johnny Sexton and James Ryan were ruled out by head knocks suffered in Cardiff, while Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony were also unavailable due to injury and suspension respectively.
The stand-in skipper admits Ireland must perform for the remainder of the championship, starting on February 27 against Italy in Rome.
“Ultimately we’ve got three games left, our backs are against the wall. We have to pull out performances for not only the next game, but the next three games,” said Northern Irishman Henderson.
“If there’s anything that needs changed irrespective of where it is across the board, this week and next week’s training we have to be able to fix those.”
Despite the result, Ulster player Henderson said it was a “really proud moment” to become the 108th player to captain Ireland.
“All those cliches spring to mind and they’re genuine,” he said.
“I’m so honoured and privileged. Getting a cap for Ireland was, when I was younger, probably beyond my expectations.
“To be able to captain the guys was massive for me and my family. A really proud moment.
“Frustrating we didn’t get the result, but it will definitely go down in the memory as one of my proudest Irish caps.”
Centre Robbie Henshaw has called for Ireland to adopt a fearless approach to the outstanding fixtures, which also include a trip to Scotland on March 14 and the visit of defending champions England six days later.
“For us, we need to go out and attack every game and just play rugby and have a go every time. It’s a massive challenge for us,” said Henshaw.
“We have two weeks now to dust ourselves off and to turn the page and make sure we attack the last block.”