Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 3°C
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O'Shea: 'That’s sport. That’s why I’ll never do any job in Ireland'
The Italy head coach remains realistic about what his side can achieve against the top teams.

BEING HOME IN Ireland is always pleasant for Conor O’Shea, although he explains that he has taken flak from close quarters this week.

“It’s great meeting people,” says the Italy boss. “Although going into Blackrock College [where Italy have trained] was pretty tough as I’m a Terenure boy, so I have to talk to a few people about why I was there!

“Also, I got into trouble with my Mum because I’ve told everyone it’s her 80th birthday so she said, ‘Why the hell did you say that?’”

Conor O'Shea Tommy Dickson / INPHO O'Shea is back in Dublin with Italy. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

O’Shea’s Italy team will be doing their best to upset Ireland tomorrow in Lansdowne Road but by the early stages of next week Joe Schmidt is likely to be sitting down with his counterpart to go through the Six Nations game, O’Shea being so eager to keep learning.

He has spent time with several other international head coaches in a bid to make his Italy team better.

“I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing Joe on Monday because we have a break and so do Ireland,” says O’Shea. “We said we’d meet for a chat and he can tell me what weaknesses they were looking to exploit and try to learn from him.

“Until we’re a threat, they’ll talk to us. When we’re a threat, they’ll probably stop talking to us! These guys have more experience than I have and the Six Nations is different, the intensity and scrutiny, the physicality, it’s not like a summer Test.”

O’Shea is honest about his team’s chances in tomorrow’s clash, maintaining that if both teams play to their potential, Ireland will win.

Not that the former international fullback is despondent. He comes across as thoroughly excited and energetic about his ongoing project with Italy, one in which he says he has seen major progress since taking over in the summer of 2016.

There have been wins over Canada, Fiji, the US and South Africa – a first – in that time, but O’Shea’s other 14 Tests in charge have seen Italy defeated.

Last weekend’s Six Nations loss to England in Rome had a somewhat familiar feeling to it, with Italy very competitive early on, before making basic errors, giving up needless penalties, then fading in the final quarter.

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Conor O'Shea ahead of the game Giuseppe Fama / INPHO Italy have won four of O'Shea's 18 games in charge. Giuseppe Fama / INPHO / INPHO

O’Shea, however, is working hands-on at all levels of Italian rugby and he has seen improvement in the depth coming through the system, the organisation of the two Pro14 clubs, as well as the physical conditioning and skill level of his international players.

Still, coming to Dublin and expecting victory remains very unrealistic.

“I want to win all the time, even if I’m playing against my kids,” says O’Shea. “We want to score points and our ambition is to go out and play to score against a brilliant Irish defence. We’re not going to die wondering.

“If the players were here sitting in front of me and I told them we’re going to charge over the barricades and win the match, they’d laugh at me.

“I want them to go out and play the best game they can and what will happen, will happen. If Ireland play to their potential and we play to ours, Ireland win. Full stop.

“We aren’t as fit as we need to be at this level. We’re miles fitter than we were but we need to get to a different level of fitness. We have to learn the mentality required to win, as the Irish players have learned.”

Italy are missing important players through injury – O’Shea names Leonardo Sarto, Marco Fuser and Angelo Esposito, among others – but the head coach stresses that the fresher faces stepping into the Six Nations are now more ready than has ever been the case in Italian rugby.

Though the heavy defeat to England was hugely disappointing, O’Shea saw positives. The first try they manufactured for Tommaso Benvenuti featured a superb pass from loosehead prop Andrea Lovotti and a stunning assist from out-half Tommaso Allan.

Conor O'Shea Tommy Dickson / INPHO O'Shea remains heavily focused on improving Italy's fitness levels. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

With Mike Catt in charge of the skills and attack for Italy, O’Shea feels progress has been made.

“The work Mike has been doing is great. South Africa made 209 tackles against us in Padua [in November, when the Boks won 35-6] and we had 60% of the ball and more than 60% of the territory, dominated the game in so many ways, but the scoreline was completely lopsided.

“That’s why I talk about energy, we were on top but couldn’t score. It was a wet, dank day and we couldn’t move the point of contact. Against England, we could use some of the options we have and show that there was more than the route one.

“Sergio [Parrise]‘s pullout as well and then Tommy Allan’s pass over the top, if another fly-half had done it it was literally world-class. That try was scored by inches, if there was any break in the stride pattern of the player it wouldn’t have been scored.

“Hopefully we get a few more chances, as that’s what you train for. We didn’t take some of those opportunities against England.”

Those incremental steps of improvement are what O’Shea is referring to when he says Italy “have to celebrate the little wins” even they are losing actual Test matches.

Though O’Shea’s energy for this job remains impressive, he does also understand that focusing on the positives of performance while not getting results has a finite lifespan.

“I have said the whole time I want to win – I want to win this weekend, I want to win playing tiddlywinks, but I have to be realistic as to what we’re about,” says O’Shea.

“I’ll be judged on it. People will be sick of me talking about performances and they’ll turf me out. Fine, not a problem.

Conor O'Shea Tommy Dickson / INPHO O'Shea will meet Joe Schmidt next week. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“We have to do what’s right for Italian rugby, make the changes we think are right.

“Hopefully, people can see what we’re doing is right, and the wins will come if we keep on doing the right things. We have to understand that every second counts, every breakdown counts, every tackle counts.

“The players will see if I lose energy and I ain’t lost energy about this because I can see we’re improving. If at some stage, someone comes along and says, ‘Sorry, we can’t keep talking performance,’ then that’s fine.

“That’s sport. That’s why I’ll never do any job in Ireland.”

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