Conor O’Shea loving life in Italy but knows Rome wasn’t built in a day

Irishman wants his side to arrive at the next World Cup like Argentina did in 1999

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea: “There are some players with huge potential there and we just have to make sure that we have that pathway.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea: “There are some players with huge potential there and we just have to make sure that we have that pathway.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Way back when, long before he ever broke into the Leinster team, much less the Irish one, Conor O’Shea went by the moniker Caesar. That seems rather apt now.

“Someone asked me recently where I got the nickname. I can’t remember. It goes back a long, long, long way. It’s Leinster Under-20s. The Crow will remember,” reckons O’Shea, in reference to his one-time Leinster, London Irish and Ireland back three compagno, Niall Woods.

“I romantically like to think it was when I got man of the match in a Students World Cup game in Italy with a weird mop of hair, but I don’t think it was,” says O’Shea with a self-deprecating smile.

The Irish Students actually lost to their Italians hosts in that World Cup. “We beat the might of Germany and Russia,” recalls O’Shea. “Cracking games, and then we got beaten by New Zealand in the quarter-finals in Sardinia or Sicily or somewhere.”

He reckons he was 22 then, doing his post-grad. “It’s always been Caesar. Always been Caesar.” Another one was ‘Mustard’, as in keen as mustard.

“I still haven’t changed, sadly. I still feel as young as that.”

The way Woods recalls it, O’Shea earned his Caesar nickname during their Leinster under-20s days. “He had curly hair back then, and a wicked fringe, so he became known as Julius Caesar, and Caesar stuck!” 

Conor O Shea breaks the Italian defence to score during a Six Nations match in Lansdowne Road. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Conor O Shea scoring against the Italians in Lansdowne Road. Photograph: The Irish Times

And so Caesar has ended up in Rome this weekend, the first Irish head coach to plot against Ireland in the Six Nations. Although home is actually just outside Verona, rather than Rome, in a town called Sirmione, 200 metres off Lake Garda.

“I thought it was important that, as a family, and having the opportunity to live there, we experienced a nice part of the world. It’s right in the middle of the two franchises. It’s an hour and a half for me to Parma, and an hour and a half to Treviso, roughly. An hour and 10 minutes if you’re an Italian driver, an hour and a half if you’re me.

“It’s a perfect place for us to be based really, because you can enjoy the life and the lifestyle, but the north is the main sector for rugby, Calvisano or Petrarca or San Donà, and you’ve got Fiamme Oro and Lazio down in Rome. But the main belt of clubs are up north.”

O’Shea and his wife, Alex, have “due bambini” as he puts it, Isabella (10) and Olivia (7), and he describes his and his family’s new life as amazing.

To ready himself for the big move, he read plenty. “I read more about football people who moved, about what mistakes they made, not trying to learn the language, not immersing themselves in the culture, and I didn’t want to make that mistake.”

By the time O’Shea was confirmed as the new man in March 2016, word was that he’d been studying Italian for several months before taking over from Jacques Brunel last summer.

English and Italian

According to some around the squad, his Italian is actually quite good, and when The Irish Times was waiting for this interview, O’Shea was switching between English and Italian without apparent bother. He maintains otherwise.

People like you making an effort but if you’re making a really pivotal point and there’s any doubt, say it in English

“I made a big effort, although God I speak rubbish Italian. But I try, and I joined my local cycling club, just so I can get out on a bike with locals to have a coffee, to go for a bike ride, and listen to them speak.”

This was also to get to know the locale. So O’Shea has come home from his Sunday morning cycles and informed Alex of his latest discovery. “She says: ‘Have you gone cycling at all?’ Because by now I’ve got a vineyard, a restaurant, a golf club and a few other places to go to. ‘What did you do today?’ she says. And I say: ‘It was a bloody good bike ride.’”

O’Shea sought advice from Eddie Jones when he coached in Japan. “His wife is Japanese and he told me ‘she wouldn’t even allow me to tell the dog to sit because it might do something completely different! So don’t be afraid to speak in your mother tongue.

“People like you making an effort but if you’re making a really pivotal point to Sergio or Luke MacLean, whose mother is Italian, and there’s any doubt, say it in English. Make sure they understand. There are times when you can say it in Italian, but there are also times when you have to be very precise.”

He describes the people as “lovely”, and admits: “Lake Garda is a beautiful part of the world. It’s an amazing country.”

The downside? “The bureaucracy drives me demented. There’s a code fiscale and to get it I’ve never, ever had to go through an experience like it in my life. It is bureaucratically very different so, to make changes, living there helps. You understand. Everyone wants immediate change. But change doesn’t happen like that in Italy or France. But change is happening with Boudy [Stephen Aboud, whom O’Shea recruited from the IRFU as an elite youth performance director]; changing their academy structure.

“But there’s so much there that’s good and I’d love people to come out to Italy. I’d love you to come out to Petrarca and see the pictures of Michael Cheika and see David Campese and some of the famous Italian players. And I’d love you to come to Calvisano and see [the picture of] Johan Ackermann because it’s a country that’s steeped in rugby tradition and we, as rugby people, can’t let that wither.

“But we need help, and I think you’ll see, very quickly, if we get the system right, and the structures supporting the franchises right, they’ve got a very good group of young players.”

He cites Ireland’s rise from the 1990s, Connacht’s rise up the Pro12, and also Glasgow’s 90-19 defeat in a Heineken Cup quarter-final playoff away to Leicester in the 1997-98 season.

“That can be turned around, not to win World Cups, not to win Pro12s in the short-term, but certainly to start the pathway to create a very competitive team.”

A wannabee Kerryman

Born in Limerick, but the son of Jerome O’Shea who won three All-Irelands with Kerry in the 1950s, he likes to think of himself as “a wannabee Kerryman”.

Conor O Shea during his London Irish days. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Allsport
Conor O Shea during his London Irish days. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Allsport

Yet it’s a little amazing to think that O’Shea has been a rugby exile from Ireland for more than two decades, as first a player with London Irish and then through coaching and administrative stints with the RFU (as director of regional academies) and then the English Institute of Sport, before Harlequins lured him back into coaching after he discovered he missed it. And now Italy. Granted, the 20-year odyssey has been intermingled with frequent visits home.

“Yeah, it’s incredible. I was actually thinking about that the other day. I’ve been living abroad almost as long as I’ve lived in Ireland. But I don’t feel like it, partly because of my involvement with RTÉ,” he says of his lengthy stint as a studio pundit, and a shrewd, balanced one at that.

“For the last 20 years some people think I have been living in Ireland, and it doesn’t feel like I’ve been away for 20 years because I’ve been back on such a regular basis. Not so much now. In fact, I haven’t been back at all since the summer.”

His parents, two brothers and others in the extended family have been looking forward to this weekend’s trip to Rome. Sorting them all out with tickets has been “a difficult gig”, he admits wryly, “but at least it’s a home game, because you only get one ticket for an away game.”

After coming through school at Terenure and college at UCD, and playing for Lansdowne and Leinster, O’Shea went on to play for London Irish from 1995 to 2000, winning the Premiership’s players’ player of the season in 1998-99. He also won 35 caps for Ireland as a strong, hard-running, left-footed fullback, before his career was cut short due to a knee injury at the age of 30.

He looks back on his playing days with satisfaction, and he sees it as relevant to his current role.

“You’d love to write a different script and done everything, but – and this is the part to get across to these fellas with Italy – everyone has a part to play. Even when there were tough times, the players fought so hard, but weren’t supported in the right way,” he says of his own time with Ireland. “And now, look what a good system does.”

Yet even after Ireland’s 1999 defeat in Lens to Argentina there have been other setbacks along the way, such as more World Cup defeats to Argentina.

“So nothing is ever going to be straightforward. Sport is very strange. Would you love to have done some things differently and have scored some unbelievable tries, and enjoyed more wins? Of course. But I wouldn’t swap anything either.

“I grew up with a great group of people and even events that have happened in the last year have shown how special a bond, and how you feel about people, of that kind of vintage,” he adds, in reference to the passing of Anthony Foley. In all of this, O’Shea hopes that the win over South Africa “might be the Munster of ’78 for Italian rugby to just give it that belief”.     

Career in coaching

O’Shea is as surprised as some of his former team-mates that he’s ended up having a career in coaching. That began in 2001, before his 31st birthday, as skills coach at London Irish. Soon after he became their director of rugby.

A phlegmatic attitude has assuredly helped.

“It was a tough thing to do with your former team-mates, but if you fail, you fail. What’s the worst thing that can happen? It doesn’t work out. It’s not the end of the world. Worse things can happen.”

Fast-forwarding to the present, he says: “This is just an unbelievable opportunity,” and adds: “maybe I’m the right person now, but there might be somebody else who is the right person to bring it on to the next level. I’m very, very comfortable with that. I just want to make a massive impact for rugby, not just for Italian rugby, because Italian rugby is good for the game.”

Italians are passionate, emotional and they’re very confrontational, which suits the game of rugby

Indeed, no less than first the French, and the Argentinians, so also it would be a duller, Anglo-Saxon game without the Italians.

He knows there will be, as he puts it, dark days and tough times. But he likes a challenge, and he has innate Italian strengths to work with. “Italians are passionate, emotional and they’re very confrontational, which suits the game of rugby. Mentally, because they are so browbeaten, there’s a real circle of negativity around them that we have to try to burst our way through. And they’re truly fantastic people.”

Unlike Ireland’s school-feeder system, there are no sports in schools, and so many players come to the game after school via clubs. “Kids don’t get the same level of activity across the board, and it’s affecting Italian sport, not just rugby. That’s why we have to get the underage playing and coaching system right in the clubs.”

He wants Italy to arrive at the next World Cup like Argentina did in 1999, perceived as underdogs but also to make opponents think ‘Why did we draw them?’ To that end, he says: “Watch the under-20s this year. There are some players with huge potential there and we just have to make sure that we have that pathway.”

Conor O'Shea talks to his players on the eve of their Six Nations match against Ireland. Photograph: AFP PHOTO
O'Shea talks to the Italy squad on the eve of the Six Nations match against Ireland. Photograph: AFP PHOTO

At a recent board meeting of the Italian Federation (FIR) in Bologna three weeks ago, when O’Shea delivered his address in Italian, he told all present that the two most important people in the room were Stephen Aboud and Daniele Pacini, the technical manager of their domestic game.

O’Shea already knows the bulk of his World Cup squad barely two-and-a-half years out from the event. “If I get more experience into Carlo [Canna] and Edo Padovani and Maxime Mbanda and Andrea Lovotti and Ornel Gega and Marco Fuser, and we mould a few of the older fellas and get in one or two new players, we’ll have a bloody good side, and we’ll need luck to be injury-free. But the people who will actually change the system are those two [Aboud and Pacini].

“It’s very exciting,” he also says in virtually the same breath. “I know the scale of the task. I know people will write me off as a lunatic, but so be it.”

Phlegmatic, boundlessly enthusiastic and positive, and, rather un-Caesar like, ego-free. He’ll give it his all. 

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