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'Could I lie and say I haven’t thought about it?' - Conor O'Shea on facing Ireland

The Italy head coach will take on his home nation in round two of the Six Nations.

SATURDAY 11 FEBRUARY is going to be an odd day for Conor O’Shea as he attempts to help Italy to a shock win over his native Ireland.

Now firmly installed as head coach of the Italians, the 35-times capped former Ireland fullback is eager to ensure that the Six Nations minnows show they are no longer in the competition just to make up the numbers.

Conor O'Shea O'Shea took over the Italians last year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Buoyed by a stunning win over South Africa in November, O’Shea’s Italy are determined to shake off their longstanding reputation as a side that is competitive for somewhere in the region of 50 minutes and then capitulates late on in games.

Of course, this is very much still a work in progress for O’Shea – the Italians lost at home to Tonga a week after beating the Springboks – but he is in it for the long haul and the quality of his Italian language underlines how serious he is about his job.

First up for Italy in the 2017 Six Nations is a home tie against Wales on Sunday of the opening weekend, but after that O’Shea will be welcoming Joe Schmidt’s Ireland to Rome.

Could I lie and say I haven’t thought about it? Ah, it will be special,” said O’Shea at yesterday’s Six Nations launch in London when asked about facing Ireland.

“I think lots of family and lots of friends [will be there]. Like Joe would have when he would play New Zealand, my country will always be Ireland, my home will always be Ireland, but my responsibility and my job lies with Italy.

“We’ll try and prepare, and make sure that we put out a side and put in a performance that, six days after Wales, will make us proud.

“But first and foremost, we want to make sure that we focus absolutely 100% on Wales, because the last couple of Six Nations games against them have been difficult.

“So, we want to make sure we gain their respect back, and start to earn their respect back, and show that we’re moving in the right direction. We’ll look at Ireland then.”

Conor O’Shea, Rob Howley, Eddie Jones, Joe Schmidt, Guy Noves and Vern Cotter O'Shea and his fellow head coaches at yesterday's launch. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

O’Shea’s appointment in 2016 brought a renewed sense of optimism to Italian rugby, at Test level at least, while Mike Catt and Brendan Venter bring further quality to the coaching staff.

However, there remain concerns over Italy’s future in the club game, with Treviso and Zebre continuing to struggle to make an impact in the Guinness Pro12 and European competitions.

O’Shea’s expertise is being called on across all areas of Italian rugby, but his primary focus is on the national team delivering performances that can also spark the growth of the game across the country.

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“There are things that we need to do to change people’s perception, and that’s the way we’ll play, and earn people’s respect back,” said former Harlequins director of rugby O’Shea.

“We had the disappointment against Tonga, but we had an unbelievable result against South Africa, and they’re the games that you need to actually inspire a generation, and we’re going to have on this rollercoaster that I talked about in the Premiership and I’m talking about here.

“We’re going to have ups and downs as we become more consistent, and we have to make sure we treat both of those accordingly.

“I just see so much good, but to get us to where we want to be we need to be so much more precise in what we do and how we deliver things to these fellas, and then the rewards will be reaped.”

Italy face Wales, Ireland and France at home this year in the Six Nations, with away trips for the England and Scotland fixtures.

Sergio Parisse and Conor O’Shea O'Shea alongside captain Sergio Parisse. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

O’Shea is unwilling to state a defined target in terms of wins for the Italians this year, instead stressing again that they must first focus on playing well consistently.

“We can’t fool you. We can’t fool supporters,” said O’Shea. “We’re obviously a team that is striving to work in the right way, and if we do that then results will look after themselves. So, I’m going to be very boring.

“I’m going to talk performance, performance, performance, and hopefully we’ll be very much about performance. Because we can’t look at results, and we’re just looking at making sure our short, medium and long-term goals are met.

“In the short-term, that we become more competitive, and in the medium-term that we arrive at that 2019 World Cup with an unbelievably difficult group of players to play against.

“I lost to Argentina in 1999 [with Ireland], and hopefully we can do something similar in our pool. Then in the long-term, we’ve set up systems and structures, and changed some of the pathways, and made very necessary changes.”

It will be fascinating to follow the progress of Italy this year. In bocca al lupo, Conor!

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Murray Kinsella

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