Rob Kearney has warned Ireland to finish the RBS 6 Nations with a flourish or risk turning from champions into also-rans.
Two-time winners Ireland relinquished their Six Nations title with a 21-10 defeat to England at Twickenham on Saturday, following the 16-16 draw with Wales and 10-9 loss to France in Paris. Full-back Kearney admitted frustrations with what Ireland are now terming a transitional phase, with more than 10 regulars out injured and talismanic captain Paul O'Connell now retired.
Ireland will close the Six Nations by hosting Italy and Scotland, with Kearney challenging Joe Schmidt's men to claw back some pride with two morale-boosting victories.
"To be honest I think we still had a little bit of hope on Saturday that in the back of our heads that results could have gone our way and we could have been right back in it," said Kearney. "But we're out of the championship now, we just need to make sure we finish really strongly and round off in mid-table.
"It is frustrating and of course you want results now. But you can't always be riding the crest of a wave. There are times of transition and perhaps we are in one of those now. But at the same time we need to make sure we're not making any excuses and the team that goes out are doing as best they can.
"I think we played quite well at times and if we took some of those opportunities it could have been a very different scoreboard. It's absolutely imperative that we finish off the tournament with two home wins now."
England boss Eddie Jones threatened to impose a media blackout on himself ahead of the potentially championship-deciding clash against Wales on Saturday, March 12.
The wily Australian was in tetchy form after Saturday's victory over Ireland when challenged to justify his pre-match comments over Johnny Sexton's well-being.
Jones appeared irked by again being asked to explain saying Sexton's parents "would be worried" by the neck injury he suffered against France, given the fly-half's history of concussions. Ireland spent the build-up to the England clash claiming they had no interest in Jones' verbal barbs, and in the aftermath of defeat Kearney insisted that was always the case.
"To be honest, genuinely we didn't speak once about it," said Kearney of Jones' comments on Sexton. "We're so used to all this noise going on in the background that it has absolutely no effect on the 80 minutes out there.
"I think it's something we've gotten better at over the years, is having that ability just to block off everything that's said on the outside. So genuinely it's not something that affects us."