Ireland: It's time for the legend of the sidestep to shake off memories of World Cup 'failure'

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The Independent Online

There are many ways to get a hangover in Dublin, but what do you do if you want to avoid one? Brian O'Driscoll, immediately after a World Cup with Ireland last autumn which started badly and never got any better, tried a few days on holiday in London. That did not work.

He went to a film set to watch his actress girlfriend – Amy Huberman, who usually plays Daisy the receptionist in a medical soap called The Clinic – working on a movie featuring Keith Allen and Dylan Moran, which ought to have been good for a laugh.

Ultimately, however, it was the old rugby routine that enveloped O'Driscoll in reassuring familiarity. "I threw myself back into my Leinster captaincy," he said. "You know, when you work that hard for something and it's a failure, it's hard to take, but sitting around moping about it doesn't do you any good."

The Irish Rugby Football Union were not so sanguine. Stung by the pool-stage exit under a coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, whose contract they extended by four years just before the World Cup began, they ordered a thorough review.

A company called Genesis – though Exodus might have been more apt – recommended the appointment of a team manager,backs coach and sports psychologist, though they will not be in place until after the Six Nations' Championship. O'Sullivan has admitted he got the World Cup build-up badly wrong, but that's about it.

The 22-man squad to take on Italy next Saturday contains four players new to the Six Nations – hooker Bernard Jackman, prop Tony Buckley, No 8 Jamie Heaslip and utility back Rob Kearney – but mostly familiar faces.

O'Driscoll's face has not been the same since the pre-World Cup "friendly" against the French club Bayonne, when he was punched by an itinerant Kiwi. There is a faint, two-inch scar under his right eye to remind him every day of surely the daftest fixture imaginable before a French World Cup.

Ireland's most influential back reached the tournament – for which the bookmakers rated them the home unions' best bet – even more undercooked than the rest of the squad, who were no better than rare to medium. Though it was no disgrace to lose to France and Argentina, who finished fourth and third respectively, the insipidness of Ireland's play and their inability to dominate lesser nations in Namibia and Georgia was a shock.

"I never get going really until four or five games into a season, and you can see other Ireland players like Ronan O'Gara and Donnacha O'Callaghan are on great form now," O'Driscoll said last week. Has he considered changing his approach as captain? "I don't think it's really down to me to say or do anything different," he said. "I'm as responsible as the next guy, but you do need a lot of things to go right."

It sounds non-committal, but that's O'Driscoll, in public at any rate. He might have mentioned his four straight wins as captain over England between 2004 and 2007. You can bet a Dallaglio or a Johnson would have dropped something like that into the conversation. O'Driscoll did not. "I can't say I was pleased with how I performed at the World Cup, but I wasn't overly disappointed. I didn't play ashamedly but I did not play the way I'm capable of."

There really should be no need to question O'Driscoll's place in the rugby pantheon. His coruscating sidestep and mastery of the game's open spaces and hidden possibilities are without parallel in the past decade. But there is a dawning realisation that he is missing too many trains heading for destination "greatness". His Lions tour as captain in 2005 ended prematurely with injury, and he chose to sign a new contract with Leinster until 2011 rather than push his boundaries to Toulouse or Biarritz.

In December, the Irish squad got back together for a single day's debrief led by O'Sullivan, with the players split into groups to hammer out any differences. "We found out a lot about each other," said O'Driscoll. "Some players were more comfortable talking to me, some were more comfortable talking to other senior players. That's the best route to go to the coach with."

O'Driscoll may never be gung-ho, but do not forget he led Ireland out of the dark ages of the 1990s to a very credible three Triple Crowns in four years. They must go back to France and win if their 60-year wait for a Grand Slam is to end this year. And if Brian O'Driscoll has truly got the World Cup out of his system, they might just do it.

Watch Ireland play host to wooden-spoon favourites Italy next Saturday from 2pm on BBC1