World Cup can wait as legend sets sights on Pro12 glory
Six Nations hero refusing to look too far ahead in bid to soothe pain of early Euro exit
It was a slow start to the year for Ireland captain and Munster legend Paul O'Connell but his province's untimely exit from Europe sparked a sharp ascent.
The 35-year-old was criticised following some below-par displays in the group stages of the Champions Cup, but he put that behind him and focused on improving as the season went on.
And gradually things began to pick up as the Limerick native drove Ireland to back-to-back Six Nations for the first time in 66 years, with the Munster squad performing heroics in his absence.
Now Anthony Foley's side are in a much better place: they lie second in the Pro12 standings with three rounds of rugby remaining ahead of their clash against Treviso at Irish Independent Park tomorrow.
"It is disappointing to be knocked out like that, we are used to being in the latter stages of European competition but that's just life. You just have to get on with it and make the most of it," says O'Connell.
"Since then we have done well in the Guinness Pro12. We are second heading into the weekend so hopefully there can be a positive that comes out of it.
"The criticism probably was justified, we weren't playing well and it was disappointing to be knocked out. People expect us to be playing in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup.
"It would be a great thing to get to have a home semi-final at Thomond Park, in a packed house in May. It would be brilliant for the supporters, it would be brilliant for the players and everyone involved in Munster."
After the Italians, Munster travel to take on Ulster at Kingspan Stadium - a ground they will hope to re-visit in the Pro12 Grand Final.
In their last game of the regular season, they host Dragons at their Cork venue in their final game of the season proper, where O'Connell and his team-mates will be hoping to secure a home semi-final.
Even without the added pressure of the Champions Cup knockout phases, O'Connell captained Ireland in one of their toughest Six Nations campaigns in years and that inevitably took its toll.
Joe Schmidt's side rescued the title with a 40-10 win over Scotland on a thrilling final day in March and O'Connell believes it fatigued him mentally.
"It was great to win it again, any time you win a Six Nations is brilliant and to win it in the nature that we did as well made it all the better," he says.
"It's difficult mentally more than anything, we are quite well looked after. We play two games and we have a weekend off, then you play one game and you have weekend off and then you play two games.
"Going into that Scotland game with three teams having a chance of winning it, there was a big build-up to that but it was still very enjoyable."
Ireland came into the final day knowing they needed to win by at least six points to claim successive titles for the first time since 1949.
But Wales' astonishing 61-20 win over Italy in Rome laid down another marker as Ireland now needed to beat Scotland by 21 points to overhaul the Welsh.
O'Connell notched his seventh try in 101 appearances in the green - the first of the day for Ireland as they went on to beat the Scots and post a points difference that England couldn't match against France.
The elation was obvious as O'Connell lifted the Six Nations trophy for the second time in 12 months but despite the victory he argues it doesn't hold much significance for the World Cup.
Ireland are ranked third in the world only behind New Zealand and South Africa coming into the show-piece event to be staged in England in September.
"I don't think it makes any difference, certainly you want to have a bit of form and you want to be doing things right in a World Cup year. But we treated the Six Nations itself in isolation," says O'Connell.
"You never know with injuries, with selection, with the way things change it could be a very different team in six months' time at the World Cup.
"It is nice to have a bit of form going into it but I don't think the two of them match up as much as people would like to think," adds the former Lions captain.
The season has been getting better and better for O'Connell and 18,842 fans voted for him to be Player of the Six Nations, his first time to win this piece of silverware.
He's won almost everything there is to win in the game but he isn't being derailed by talk of the Webb Ellis trophy completing the jigsaw later this year or recent talk about his future.
"I just want to keep enjoying myself, enjoying training, enjoying preparing for games. That is the big thing. I think whatever comes with that, comes with that," he says. "There is always stuff you would like to be doing better in but by in large my game is okay at the moment.
"The World Cup is a long way away. You don't really focus on that, I think for me it's just about trying to prepare as best as I can myself at the moment.
"Play as best as I can for Munster and after that have a good pre-season and hopefully bring some form into the World Cup.
"You don't really plan too far ahead, it proves to be a bit of a distraction."