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'I love my country but I'll see where my life takes me': Conor O'Shea on seeking opportunities outside of Ireland

The former Ireland fullback on taking over as Azzurri boss and the prospect of facing his homeland in Rome next year.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE INCOMING ITALY coach takes a moment or two to respond.

The question is a simple one but the answer more complicated: why didn’t Conor O’Shea take on a rugby job in Ireland?

“I’ve never really thought about it, to be honest”, he says.

“You see things being talked about but at the moment I’m just learning the whole time in everything I do and I’m excited by the next challenge. I’m excited by the focus I have on the next six weeks to try and finish off with Harlequins in the right way and come the summer tour I’ll have a different focus. Life will take its path. Sometimes you plan, sometimes you don’t. I love coming back here, knowing I have a lot of friends. I’m not in any way embittered because sport can go one of two ways. I love my country and sometimes, you have a bad time. In sport, generally, there are very few ways you can leave on your own terms.”

The 45-year-old former Irish fullback had already confirmed his intention to step down as director of rugby with the Aviva Premiership side at the end of the current campaign when he was confirmed as the Azzurri’s head coach last month.

Rugby Union - Aviva Premiership - Gloucester v Harlequins - Kingsholm Stadium Source: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

The four-year deal, which had long been predicted, still had many wondering why such a successful and well-regarded Irish rugby figure hadn’t been lured home. But he stresses there’s no hidden agenda or skeleton in the closet.

“I have loads of good friends in the IRFU – all the way up to (IRFU chief executive) Philip (Browne) who I’ll hopefully meet this Friday for a coffee and a catch-up.”

So, can he see himself working in Ireland at some stage?

“I don’t know. I know where I’m working for the next six or seven weeks and I know where I’ll work afterwards.

I love my country but it’s a profession so I’ll see where my life takes me. I’m just looking forward to the next six weeks. With a group that has given so much to me and the relationships I’ve built up with people – guys I’ve gone through a heck of a lot with and still go through a lot with – I’d love to finish in a nice way. But you don’t write your scripts in sport. We have an opportunity and we’ll see what happens. I’ll just give the next part of my life everything I can and do what’s best for my family and myself.”

After some initial encouragement owing to a two-point defeat in Paris, Italy’s Six Nations campaign ended with back-to-back thrashings against Ireland and Wales. They conceded 125 points in 160 minutes and it proved a dismal conclusion to Jacques Brunel’s time in charge.

Ireland v Italy - 2016 RBS Six Nations - Aviva Stadium Italy struggled badly in the 2016 6 Nations - as evidenced by the thrashing they received at the hands of Ireland. Source: Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Still, O’Shea refuses to dwell on the negatives.

“It’s getting out of your comfort zone,” he says.

“It’s what makes life fun. Without a bit of a challenge or a bit of freshness in your life… I’ll spend my whole life, hopefully, with my wife and kids and we’ll have something to look back on.

I’m really excited – both personally and professionally – to be making the move and by the challenge and I look forward to it. But my job is to finish the season well with Quins. It’s a day off for me – I’m missing Chris Robshaw’s shooting day – he’ll kill me. I’ve had six unbelievable years there. I’m looking forward to what comes next but at the moment my job is Harlequins and I want to win.”

He admits to having allowed himself think about the prospect of next February – when Italy host Ireland at the Stadio Olimpico – but remains coy on how he feels about facing Joe Schmidt.

“He’d never be a foe, I hope,” O’Shea says.

“I hope he’s a friend. I have so much time for Joe and he’s been so good to us – to Quins and to me, personally. Hopefully I can still learn from him.”

O’Shea has already raided the Irish setup and will bring Steve Aboud, the IRFU’s head of technical direction, with him to Italy from 1 August.

Aboud will take up a newly-created role as director of elite youth performance and will oversee the training of underage players and coaches.

Steve Aboud speaks to the coaches O'Shea will have Steve Aboud to lean on from 1 August. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Meanwhile, former England player and coach Mike Catt will also be part of O’Shea’s regime – taking over as skills and attack coach.

“I’ve known Steve since I was eight,” O’Shea reveals.  

“The Junior Cup final in 1978. Terenure v Blackrock when my brother’s team beat them. He was in charge of the academies over here and he was a great friend to me in bad times – which I think is the true test of somebody. So I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with him, seeing what he does and what I’m going to do.

“We’ll all get together at a certain time and start plotting what each other is doing. I’m looking forward to working with Catty (Mike Catt) on one side and Steve – who I go back a long, long way with. I think we all just want to see something different and make sure the sport is growing and everything is competitive.”

Conor O’Shea is an ambassador for Irish Life MAPS (Multi Asset Portfolio) – a range of unit link funds, available across the company’s pension, investment and savings plans.

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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