O’Shea ready for Harlequins’ biggest day

Irishman has led brilliant revival from ashes of Bloodgate

 Conor O’Shea believes the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Munster is the biggest game in the club’s history. Photograph:   Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Conor O’Shea believes the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Munster is the biggest game in the club’s history. Photograph: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Wed, Apr 3, 2013, 20:25

Conor O’Shea has branded Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Munster as the biggest occasion in Harlequins’ history — exactly four years on the from the club’s nadir of Bloodgate.

It was in the 2009 quarter-final against Leinster that O’Shea’s predecessor Dean Richards instructed wing Tom Williams to bite on a fake blood capsule so he could engineer a late substitution.

Harlequins lost anyway in a 6-5 thriller but their ruse was rumbled and it led to some of the darkest days for the club, with Richards receiving a three-year ban.

Three years ago, O’Shea decided to leave behind his “safe job” at the English Institute Of Sport to guide Harlequins from the wreckage of Bloodgate and it has been an unqualified success.

Harlequins won the Amlin Challenge Cup in 2011, the Aviva Premiership title in 2012 and now they are aiming to conquer Europe. Victory this weekend would put the club into their first Heineken Cup semi-final.

“This Sunday will be the best day The Stoop has witnessed in terms of atmosphere and occasion,” O’Shea said.

“I was watching the Champions League last night and thinking ‘that’s the level we are at in rugby’.

“One of the first books I was given by (then chief executive) Mark Evans when I came into the club was a history of Harlequins.

“Every person, every team has a history. There are good and bad chapters in every history. You want to go and create different chapters.

“We just can’t wait to get into the quarter-final this weekend and help this club get to a first Heineken Cup semi-final in its history.

“There is no tomorrow in games like this. Munster’s journey of heartache and loss to ultimately winning it (in 2006) is one of the great stories of the Heineken Cup.

“They will come absolutely full on and we will be there to meet them and greet them in the right way.”

O’Shea had to think long and hard about moving back into coaching, having left London Irish for strategic roles first at the English Rugby Football Union and then EIS.

But when he looked beneath the Bloodgate stain he saw a structure and, most importantly, a group of players who he believed could restore the club’s reputation.

O’Shea’s first act was to make Chris Robshaw the youngest captain in the Aviva Premiership. Three years later he is the England skipper and destined for a Lions tour.

O’Shea said: “The debate I had with my wife over leaving the EIS was ‘why am I leaving a safe job in the public service for a job where I could be sacked within six games?’

“The club was not tainted in that the people and structures and players were in rude health. From bad can come good. It is a great club to be part of.

“I love rugby and the game and the guys here had incredible amount of ability. You back them that you are going to get a good chance to achieve something.

“That game four years ago finished 6-5 and Leinster have gone on and won Heineken Cups. What would this team have done had they happened to make it 8-6?”

The desire O’Shea has to see his project through at Harlequins is strong enough to resist even the lure of taking the Ireland job after the sacking of Declan Kidney.

O’Shea has confirmed his commitment to Harlequins and he would like to extend his contract beyond 2014. It is not just the present he believes is bright.

“Over the last three seasons we have won three trophies. We are in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and we are in the Premiership play-off places,” O’Shea said.

“These next eight weeks are the eight weeks you want. It could be nothing — it could be all. Hopefully it is going to be great end.

“We are very excited about the group of players we have and how far we still have left to improve as a team.

“There are so many good young players at this club. We won the A League. You look at the team that won the LV= Cup. You want to be around and see that grow. It is bloody exciting.”