Irish rugby will have to keep on waiting for Conor O’Shea
Italy is the next port of call for the man who has spent 15 years coaching abroad
The Harlequins director of rugby, Conor O’Shea. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images
Heretofore Conor O’Shea has been merely a player and a pundit, whatever about being a prophet, in his own land. Yet for the last five years of his playing career and now, for 15 years or more since, O’Shea has been coaching abroad.
After seeing out his days as a fullback with London Irish, from 1995 until his retirement in 2000, O’Shea spent five more years with the Exiles club as director of rugby and managing directing before working with the RFU and English Institute of Sport.
Now, coming to the end of his six seasons as director of rugby at Harlequins, he is about to take up a four-year contract as the Italian head coach, which would appear the ultimate challenge in world rugby even for a man once nicknamed ‘Caesar’.
It seems as if he is destined never to coach in his native land, despite being the son of a triple All-Ireland winner with Kerry, being born in Limerick, educated in Terenure and playing for Lansdowne, Leinster and Ireland 35 times before his career was cut short by an ankle injury a the age of 30.
So could he foresee working in Irish rugby? “I don’t know. I know where I’m working for the next seven weeks, and where I’ll work afterwards.” When pressed, he added: “I love my country, but it’s, ‘I’ll just see where my life takes me’.”
O’Shea was in Dublin as an ambassador for Irish Life MAPS (multi asset portfolio) which is a range of unit link funds, available across Irish Life pension, investment and savings plans. He was billed as the incoming “national team coach for the Italian rugby team”, but the one topic he wouldn’t discuss was his impending Italian job.
His most thoughtful pause was when asked why he’d never applied for a job in Irish rugby. “I’ve never really thought about it, to be honest. You see things being talked about, but at the moment I’m just learning the whole time in everything I do,” he said
O’Shea maintained, “100 per cent” that he’d never had a rift with the IRFU and had never been approached by, or made inquiries to, Munster.
“No. Never. I’ve never spoken to them about it,” he said, even though: “I go back with Garrett [Fitzgerald, Munster chief executive] to the Irish students to Italy in 1990 or 1991.”
He revealed he will also be meeting IRFU CEO Philip Browne this week for coffee.
As to the role of a director of rugby – which Munster are about to fill and a role he and his playing buddies Mark McCall and David Humphreys all fill in the Premiership – O’Shea said some can be more hands-on than others.
“Ultimately, though, whoever hires fires, selects, sacks, they are the boss and everyone has to know that. There can’t be a middle ground. You have to know who is in charge. As long as everyone knows who is in charge, they know what the hierarchy is. That’s the most important thing.”
Finishing off his successful tenure with Harlequins by swiftly taking over the Azzurri did elicit the acknowledgement that this was a challenging time in his life.
As for Ireland’s performances this season under his soon-to-be counterpart Joe Schmidt, O’Shea maintained: “People have, in my opinion, completely overreacted over here to what we in Irish rugby are going through this year. Completely.
“I think Ireland will be right back, they already were this year, drew with Wales, lost by a point to France, they were ravaged with injuries. You look at Leinster, Munster, Connacht, how Ulster have done and there won’t be an issue in Irish rugby for years.”
Springing a surprise
He thinks Ireland are well capable of “springing a surprise” in South Africa, although admits it comes at the end of a brutally tough season. He cites the continuing emergence of new talent as another reason for optimism.
“Look at the likes of Matt Healy, I’m irritated I didn’t sign him four or five years ago when he was at Lansdowne but there are a few Irish players I wish in hindsight I’d signed. But it’s like the property bubble, you look to invest and you realise you should have invested a long time ago.”
He knows the lay of the land here alright.