Peter Bills: Focused O'Driscoll remains cool as Slam talk hots up
The belief that hallmarked Ireland's progress through 2009, their year of great rugby triumph, was underlined yesterday as Brian O'Driscoll willingly contemplated the holiest of Holy Grails.
Back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations championship.
It was a measure of the growing conviction within this Irish squad that the idea alone was not dismissed out of hand. O'Driscoll, speaking at the launch of the 2010 Six Nations in London, said: "Back-to-back Grand Slams?
"That is all new ground to me. You would have to ask someone who has done it what it feels like. I just go with the flow.
"But we won't look at things any differently and we won't treat it any differently."
Ireland's captain demonstrated the calmest of personas yesterday in confronting a battery of media cameras, microphones and notebooks. He offered an image of a man increasingly at peace with himself and there is little doubt that the achievements of 2009 have left a deeply satisfying feeling within the soul of O'Driscoll.
So might that mean his ambitions are sated? Far, very far, from it.
"You hope it will be your time again," he said.
"You get selfish after attaining a goal; you get a taste for it. But it doesn't mean your ambition isn't still there. In fact, it is heightened.
"I enjoyed all the trappings that came with it (the Grand Slam success). The winning itself, the celebrations; small things such as the general feeling in the country. If we can do that again, why not? It's much better than not doing it again.
"You don't retain anything in this tournament. You give it back and try to win it again.
"That's exactly the way we will look at it," O'Driscoll explained.
It was clear that the topic of the French is already looming large in Irish minds. O'Driscoll's side meets them on the second weekend of the championship and it is a game that might be crucial in determining the eventual winners.
Again, O'Driscoll's words were revealing, as were those of his coach Declan Kidney. O'Driscoll said: "If you are better than France this year you won't be far away for they are strong. Marc Lievremont (French coach) has changed the team a huge amount and they were very strong against South Africa."
Kidney, never a man to look more than one match ahead, ensured this Irish squad would not be living life with their heads in the clouds from next week. His warning about Irish aspirations getting too exalted was blunt and to the point.
"We are not that good a side that we can look ahead to certain matches and take others lightly. If we are in any way off the mark against Italy (on Saturday week at Croke Park), it will be a very long, difficult afternoon," said Kidney.
Yet having said that, even Kidney was prepared to look as far as Paris and February 13. "It will be daunting. But that is the reason you get into sport, these are the challenges you want to face.
"Our last trips to Paris have been quite difficult -- as an understatement -- because France are one of the benchmarks of world rugby. Last year, they beat New Zealand in New Zealand and South Africa at home so they are one of the standard bearers for world rugby. They continually achieve and they have done very well in this tournament in the even years.
"France are less dependent on injuries because they have such a big pool of playing talent."
O'Driscoll was quick to remind his audience that Ireland have won in France just once in the last 38 years. Typically, he did not mention that it was his own hat-trick that propelled the Irish to that rarest of victories.
But he warned: "The margins between success and failure are so tiny."
Alas, if only expectations in Ireland were as modest. "The Irish people don't do middle ground. They are either at the very top or the bottom. But it's definitely a nicer feeling at the top so you want to stay there as long as you can."
To that effect, he said, Ireland are continually working hard to make sure they keep pushing themselves. "We are owed nothing in Europe on the back of being unbeaten last year. So we need to go and repeat it again, starting from scratch."
Were not Ireland more confident now, much more imbued with self-belief on the back of that triumph last year, he was asked? Again, he did not demur.
"Maybe you saw it in the tight games in November. Even when we were behind in the last minutes against Australia, there was no panic. We just looked at the process of what we needed to do to get over the line.
"So I do think there is an air of calmness that comes with more experienced players. But at the same time, we want to get better as a team, with better performances, a better brand. But you can play a better style and lose games because you might not get that luck when you need it.
"We have had a lot of luck in the year gone by but hopefully we have saved a little for the Six Nations."
Kidney discouraged the view that 2010 could be a mirror image of the event of 12 months earlier. "One thing you can guarantee is, it won't be like last year. You can't repeat the passion but it will be, I hope, just as much fun. We can only work on our performances and that is what we will do."
One man in little doubt as to Ireland's potency was Italian coach Nick Mallett, whose side must confront the champions in Dublin on the opening Saturday. Mallett was fulsome in his praise for Kidney's team, saying: "They had a fantastic 2009.
"Two years ago it was a very different Irish side, probably not as happy as this one, nor as well organised and well structured. They have world-class backs and a very good pack of forwards.
"They can play any game and can strike at any moment. They're disciplined and don't make mistakes. It's a tough start for us."