Conor O’Shea makes ‘difficult decision’ to omit Ian McKinley
'This setback will only steel him to put more pressure on the guys ahead of him'
Italy coach Conor O’Shea at the team base at Radisson St Helen, Dublin, yesterday. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
La vita non è sempre bella. Life is not always beautiful. Not yet for Italian rugby, and not this weekend for Ian McKinley as the homecoming is abandoned by non-selection.
These days Conor O’Shea weaves between Italian and English (in stark contrast to Giovanni Trapattoni’s managerial reign of the Republic of Ireland when he uttered neither language with coherency). “He is so close,” said O’Shea sitting in the palatial surroundings of St Helen’s in Booterstown. The team hotel has an engraved motto on the 18 century period house: Mors Potior Macula – death rather than infamy.
McKinley was firming into the role of understudy to Johnny Sexton when tragedy struck playing club rugby for UCD. Blinded in one eye, since amended insurance issues denied him the opportunity to continue playing rugby in this country. That was 2011.
The disarming O’Shea, the first Irishman to coach against his nation in Dublin, refused to be influenced by the wonderful narrative his pen could have scrawled upon this Six Nations.
See McKinley’s rise from bottom of the Italian barrel with Leonorso in the regional third division, Viadana, Zebre and into Treviso before O’Shea capped him against Fiji last November.
He does not make the bench for Saturday.
“I wanted to pick Ian in so many ways,” said O’Shea. “But how can you say to the other players: I picked him for romantic reasons. Ian is a bloody good rugby player who has forced his way from junior rugby, going to Treviso on trial, and by force of nature he has made it this far. This setback, in his mind, will only steel him to put more pressure on the guys ahead of him. He has said that to me.”
Still, not an easy conversation between exiled Leinster men (not when Jacques Brunel plucks an old Bordeaux chum Lionel Beauxis from obscurity for the French against Scotland at Murrayfield). “Bloody difficult decision. He wanted to play in this game more than anything else but that’s not the way you pick teams.
“I knew it would mean a lot to him but Ian is a rugby player who wants to be in this team for that reason and not because he is the romantic story. Tommy Allan has the jersey and he was outstanding last week against England, and Carlo Canna is one of the top points scorers in the Pro 14 and an exciting attacking talent that brings a different option to the team.”
This callow Italy team has little chance against Ireland with 11 of the 23 owning less than 10 caps. Even if lock Alessandro Zanni and captain Sergio Parisse combine for a grand total 230, a heavy defeat is expected.
“If they play at their best and we play at our best we lose,” is the mantra from the Terenure raised, Kerry extracted man.
O’Shea also dispels the all but formed perception that has built up around his coaching career. True, he surrounds himself with the best minds in the game: after ruining the English rucks last season, Brendan Venter returned to the Springbok fold but Wayne Smith, perhaps the All Blacks greatest rugby brain (certainly in modern times), joins up with the Italians this summer and into November while Mike Catt oversees the current attack.
“There is so many distractions in a role like that [international head coach]. There is so much other stuff behind the scenes and it is very intense so when I am doing an interview with you it is important the players can go directly to the video room and know someone is there.”
“I’m with the team all the time on the pitch,” he noted. “Look, we all know exactly what we are doing. I want to lead the group. Take Thursday in Blackrock College, that will be my sort of session . . .”
Rain swirled and scuttered across the Williamstown senior pitch so only a handful of teachers and students came for a glimpse as the squad split into three pods - place kickers, the lineout and everyone else catching Murray-esque box kicks – all with O’Shea calling the shots.
“Am I a coach who likes drills and skills? Not really. I let others do that. Chico [Giampiero De Carli, the former prop] is brilliant in terms of our forwards, Marius Goosen is here to do D, so we have a link to Treviso, Catty does the attack and I make sure it all comes together. That’s the life I have.” Full interview in Saturday’s Irish Times