Conor O’Shea and Sergio Parisse both back Ireland for Six Nations

Azzurri captain: ‘I think Ireland play much better rugby than England for me’

Italy head coach Conor O'Shea and captain Sergio Parisse reflect on defeat to Ireland and look ahead to a potential Six Nations decider between Ireland and England.


“Avanti. Avanti. Avanti,” said Conor O’Shea. The Italian coach and former Irish fullback, alternating between English and Italian, can’t afford to glance back, can’t get too stuck in this Irish moment.

O’Shea’s doleful presumptions about Ireland turned out to be accurate. His view that Ireland were kick-ass, that this would be the toughest game Italy would play for some years painfully materialised less than 10 minutes into the game. This was a moment from which to move on.

“We knew before this competition started the first six days were going to be the hardest,” said O’Shea. “And I knew without saying it to the players this of all days was going to be one of the hardest games we will face over the next number of years together.”

“Forward. Forward. Forward,” he repeated breaking back to English.

Along the way the coach in him was in conflict with shifting thoughts. The immediacy and sharpness of disappointment, the pragmatic leader having to lead, the reality of facing a team ranked third in the world, and not least of all battered aspirations.

Some of it didn’t just square with the spoil heap of 56 points and eight tries.

There were also compliments for Ireland and Joe Schmidt, traditionally the kiss of death. He said Ireland would beat England. He said this championship would come down to the match against Eddie Jones and his English roses on St Patrick’s Day.

Italy have now taken thrashings from England and Ireland. A hail storm of points too, now over 100.

“ Difficult to say,” he said when asked to compare Ireland and England. “Sergio [Parisse] might have a different view on the pitch.

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“If you are to ask me now I would say Ireland to win. Don’t know what their injuries are. They didn’t look great injuries. Robbie [Henshaw] and Tadhg [Furlong] are big losses to that team as you think further down the road.

“They [Ireland] won’t lose here [in Aviva Stadium]. They’ll have stiffer tests because the teams will hold on to the ball like we didn’t do in the first half. The whole mental energy of the game will change. But I can’t see it going anywhere but down to March 17th [v England].”

Sergio didn’t have a different view at all. The 34-year-old number eight, who will equal Brian O’Driscoll’s Six Nations record of 65 appearances if he plays in the remaining three matches, echoed his coach.

“Ireland played much better rugby than England for me,” said Parisse. “It is much more difficult to defend. After these two games it was most difficult against Ireland. I like the way they play.”

The three tries Ireland conceded could have been construed as a minor victory for Italy. But if there is anything O’Shea has exorcised from Italian thinking, it is taking comfort from patronising words.

“We couldn’t create pressure, we couldn’t get a foothold in the game,” he said. “We knew they were going to hold the ball because they don’t think we are fit enough and they’re right.

“I said we are not here to get a pat on the back and say we were plucky and did well to come back. Am I glad that we showed that fight? Yes, because we want to show people that we have ability and we do. But we know all the things we need to do. This is not easy.”

Worrying signs were there to be seen and heard. O’Shea spoke of the improved Italian fitness. It was like being drawn back to an era when Irish teams were the best in the world for 60 minutes and then crashed and burned.

Hope? Sure there’s hope. Italy beat Ireland 22-15 five years ago in Stadio Olimpic. Mirroring the old tennis quip, it came after 17 straight defeats. Having once lost 16 times in a row to Jimmy Connors, a self deprecating Vitas Gerulaitis piped.

“Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

O’Shea knows there are more beatings to rationalise, more engagements with the press to explain how he hopes to turn Italian rugby around.

He glances towards his captain Sergio and talks of what they plan to do, how he hopes to make the life of one of the prized players in world rugby less painful when he pulls on an Italian shirt.

“We’d 10 British and Irish Lions on the Irish team,” he says momentarily falling back on his old allegiances. “There was 10 guys with under 10 caps [on Italy’s side]. You know, who are learning as they go.

“And I want to do something special for this bloke in the next two years and we will,” he adds nodding towards his captain. It is the closest O’Shea gets to sentiment.

“We know what our goals are. It’s blood hard. Really hard. We are so competitive as people. But we are also realistic.

“I said it right from the word go and I didn’t say it publicly, this was the day that was going to be the hardest that we were going to face in many a year for a multitude of different reasons. It’s done.”

Avanti. Avanti. Avanti.

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