Conor O’Shea’s Azzurri face All Blacks on rebound from rare defeat

Preview: Italy v New Zealand, Olympic Stadium, Rome, kick-off 2pm

In the immediate aftermath of Ireland’s historic win over the All Blacks in Chicago last Saturday, Conor O’Shea was bombarded with text messages: “Hey Conor, you must be just about the only Irishman who is unhappy about our win against the All Blacks . . .” – or words to that effect were the gist of many jocular messages.

The point, of course, is that 46-year-old, 35-times capped O'Shea these days is the CT (commissario tecnico) or head coach of Italy's national rugby team, appointed in March this year. And who do Italy play at the Olympic Stadium in Rome this afternoon? Why the All Blacks, of course.

We all know that, even at the best of times, the All Blacks are terrifying opponents. However, having to face them immediately after they have met a rare upset is even more terrifying. The All Blacks might just feel that they have a point to prove here, at the expense of hapless Italy.

Do not cry for O'Shea, however. He is nothing if not a determined optimist. Which is a good thing, because since Italy joined the Six Nations Championship in 2000, the Azzurri have lost 72 of their 85 games and have won the Wooden Spoon 11 times. Given that experienced rugby men such as All Blacks Brad Johnstone and John Kirwan and South African Nick Mallet have all tried and largely failed to reverse the Italian losing run, can O'Shea realistically be expected to do any better?


‘Revenge for Trapattoni’

Time will tell, but one thing is already clear - He will be giving it his best, most professional shot. For example, just watch him in press conference mode. At first glance, you might be tempted to call him "Ireland's Revenge For Trapattoni". Remember how the former Irish soccer team coach used to move from his own, maccheronic and colourful English to Italian and back again, in the process sometimes confusing his media audience.

Well, Italy’s new Irish coach does a similar trick. Talking to about a dozen journalists at the Acqua Acetosa training centre earlier this week, O’Shea spoke 90 per cent in Italian, lapsing into English only when he could not find the word. So a sentence could go, “Bisogna parlare con tutti, all the time”.

In fairness to O'Shea, however, there is a huge difference between his communication skills and those of Trapattoni. Whereas Trap's anecdotal style sometimes left hacks, even Italian hacks, wondering just what was his point, O'Shea is crystal clear, chiarissimo, all the time.

The significant thing, though, is his insistence on speaking Italian. Likewise, rather than remaining UK-based and flying in for periods of team training, he has moved his family, wife Alex and children Olivia and Isabella, to handsome Sirmione, close to Verona and on the shores of the Lago di Garda.

Sirmione is in the heart of Italian rugby country, with Treviso just up the road in one direction and Zebre of Parma not too far away in another direction. He says that living in Italy, having access to clubs like that, even watching the way under-age rugby is organised in Italy (after all, there is no organised team sport in Italian schools), all helps as he sets about his mammoth task, namely changing the Italian rugby mindset. In that context, speaking Italian is a must.

Impossible task

In between his press conference and his team talk, O'Shea sits down for a quick coffee with The Irish Times. Without much originality, we suggest that he is facing an impossible task, given that he really only has one world class player in his ranks, namely captain and flanker Serge Parisse. His reply is immediate:

“We have a lot more than that . . . but we have to develop a style of play that allows us to play for 80 minutes . . .”

Like the rest of us, he has noticed that Italian teams often do well in the first half of games but then tend to fade out. He puts it this way:

“Italian teams like to get out there, charge about, make a lot of tackles, but in the end all you see is the team getting more and more tired, spending their energy doing things they should not be doing.”

He sees today's game as a stepping stone in the "process" of becoming a serious team. When he looks at Ireland's win against the All Blacks, he says that you have to see that as the result of a building process that by and large began with the professionalisation of Irish rugby in the 1990s. O'Shea argues that even though this current crop of Irish players are "fantastic", the great players of Ireland's recent past, men like Paul O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara, also had a role in last Saturday's win at Soldier Field.

His Italy must follow on the Irish example, keep on believing and ride the emotional roller-coaster of sport in order “to get to the top of the mountain” and “give Italy some great days”.

“In three years time, Paddy, you can come and say to me ‘you were delusional’ and maybe you will be right but I would just love to be sitting in the stand having played a part in making Italian rugby better . . . People should be careful about calling for us to get rid of Italian rugby . . .”

NEW ZEALAND: Damian McKenzie, Israel Dagg, Malakai Fekitoa, Anton Lienert-Brown, Waisake Naholo, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Steven Luatua, Sam Cane (captain), Elliot Dixon, Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Charlie Faumuina, Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett. Replacements: Liam Coltman, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Brodie Retallick, Matt Todd, Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Rieko Ioane. Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)