A first Grand Slam since 1948 beckoned until their championship was shoved off track by France in their penultimate game, and Saturday's defeat to Grand Slam champions Wales in Cardiff left Ireland with their lowest tournament finish for three years.
With veterans such as Reggie Corrigan, Shane Byrne and Anthony Foley the wrong side of 30, doubts linger over their future.
But while O'Connell admitted Ireland have regressed since their glorious clean sweep in the November internationals, he dismissed suggestions that changes are inevitable.
"Losing to Wales was a massive disappointment,' said the 25-year-old Munster lock, who has been tipped as a potential skipper on this summer's tour.
"We've gone backwards in this championship. I thought we were ready to take the next step and push on but obviously we weren't."
"Now we must stand back, take a look at ourselves and try to go forward again. I don't think there will be a rebuilding period. No-one has talked about retiring. It will be a gradual thing if players are replaced."