Back from the end of the world
Brian O'Driscoll tells Hugh Farrelly how returning to Leinster fold has refuelled his desire after disappointment Down Under
BRIAN O'DRISCOLL says it was like "the end of the world". Billowing black clouds, biblical rain -- his first day back at work with Leinster after the shattering disappointment of Ireland's World Cup quarter-final exit was suitably grim.
A fortnight earlier, the devastation O'Driscoll felt after losing to Wales was plain to see and hard to watch. No-one is entitled to anything at World Cups but, with all he has given to Irish rugby, the punishment he has subjected his body to over the last 12 years and the incredible standards and examples he has set, O'Driscoll deserved the stage of a semi-final or final, and the knowledge that it would never happen was written all over his face.
World Cup disappointment is nothing new for the 32-year-old, who had returned home frustrated from three previous tournaments, but New Zealand 2011 was Ireland's big chance.
They blew it and he knew it.
The rest of the tournament did not register with O'Driscoll -- he switched off. He did watch the France-Wales semi-final the following weekend, but only because 40-hour jet lag had upset his sleeping patterns and he was wide awake that Saturday morning.
He didn't tune in for the final, opting to Sky Plus it and fast-forward to the best bits. ("It was exciting because of the closeness of the game, but not a brilliant game to watch," is O'Driscoll's matter-of-fact summation on New Zealand's crowning glory).
A sun holiday in Spain helped the World Cup erasure process, but while he admits to "trying not to think about it", the sense of what-might-have-been is still nagging away, perversely accentuated by the overwhelming support he has encountered on his return.
"In a way it's especially frustrating because there has been no negativity here at all, people come up say 'well done' and it's hard to accept that for reaching a quarter-final. Granted, we won the pool but, as kind as people have been, it doesn't sit well. In our minds it wasn't 'well done', it was just shy of well done.
"Time helps getting over the disappointment, and not thinking about it helps, but it was a great opportunity ... those ones are the hardest, the ones when you have missed a big opportunity.
"Looking back now, the only thing I would change is that performance in the quarter-final. Everything was perfect in the build-up, I have no qualms about that. The whole tour was very enjoyable, we trained, we got our balance right and it just didn't happen for us on the day. We made too many errors at important times and we didn't build pressure the way we needed to.
"When we got ourselves back to 10-all, we just needed to do a few simple things and that didn't happen. Then they got their tails up and got a quick try and then they were hard to catch."
O'Driscoll refutes the notion that there is a psychological barrier to Ireland's progress, based on an Irish mindset of having to be written off to produce their best performances.
"That's not a psychological barrier we are conscious of. We don't really concern ourselves with whether we are favourites or underdogs, that doesn't have an effect on how you play or how you train during the week, it doesn't affect your mentality.
"You still approach things the same way. When we play Wales, it's more often than not, very close, a one-score game, so it tends to be the team that plays better on the day that wins and that was the way it was this time as well.
"We'll play them in the Six Nations and you could have a different result so I don't think you can read into the psychological side of things too much."
While there has been only a fraction of the angst that characterised the fallout from France 2007, Irish rugby is looking for ways to improve again, and O'Driscoll becomes animated when singling out attacking variation as an area in need of special attention.
Ireland looked stilted compared to the Welsh that day in Wellington and the role of attack coach in the wake of Alan Gaffney's departure has assumed huge significance. However, the Ireland captain believes there is an onus on the players also.
"We can definitely work on our attack game, just the shape of it in general, and not just because of that one game against Wales. If you are too prescriptive you become very easily analysed. Every team has structures, but you have to have ability to change things at the last second because you have identified a weakness.
"And the ability is there -- it's always a work-in-progress and that includes me as much as anyone else, you have to be able to mix your game up. Variety is what keeps teams guessing; if you can have the same alignment for two or three different moves it keeps teams guessing, small things like that. It's an element of mind games but it can make a difference.
"From an Irish point of view, we were in a comfortable place but now we need to step on to the next level."
Once he adjusted to the apocalyptic weather, returning to Leinster lifted O'Driscoll's spirits, providing fresh targets and the enthusiasm to chase them.
Early in the tournament, Ronan O'Gara said that winning Heineken Cups is "limited consolation" after World Cup underachievement. It's an observation that is colouring the return to domestic duties, but O'Driscoll understands where O'Gara was coming from.
"That's a quote from someone who had a focus towards the World Cup. I wouldn't have been able to contemplate Heineken Cup or Six Nations or summer tours or anything else during the World Cup. Quotes change when something is put to bed, and I'm sure Ronan would say that too. Now that it is finished your focus has to change to the next really exciting thing and that's the Heineken Cup.
"It doesn't take long for you to get into that when you get a flavour of it coming back in and you realise how great a competition it is. It's not difficult to buy into that.
"The first day I went back to Leinster it was end-of-the-world rainstorms, the day before the flooding. It was tough to get your head around that and being back.
"But you slip into things very quickly. You pick up on friendships that have been on hold for a while and you buy into what you're going to be involved in now. It's an easy transition with Leinster, I've really enjoyed it here over these last three or four years -- it's very, very rarely that it's a chore to go training.
"There's a tremendous amount of talent coming through and they are good lads too, they have the right mentality.
"The onus is on us now through this period, when you've had a bit of success, to instil that mentality in these guys and when they become more mature players they, in turn, instil that mentality in the schoolboys that are going to be coming through in four or five or six years' time."
It's been a hard few weeks for O'Driscoll, arguably the hardest of his career. But rather than wind down or lapse into well-earned retirement (as some have advised him to do), the World Cup agony has forged an overwhelming desire to achieve as much as possible with the remainder of his career.
Another World Cup has been and gone without Ireland getting where they wanted to be, but the Irish captain is not done yet.
It felt like the end of the world a few weeks ago -- but the clouds are lifting.