'People have completely overreacted to what Irish rugby is going through'

Conor O’Shea points to the success of the country’s provinces as a reason to be optimistic.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IN SOME QUARTERS, there have been whispers of a crisis. Despite 6 Nations victories in 2014 and 2015, there wasn’t much in the way of sympathy for the Irish side after a difficult spring this time around.

And former international fullback Conor O’Shea believes the criticism has been out of order.

“People have, in my opinion, completely overreacted to what Irish rugby is going through. Completely,” he says.

But the minute you say that, people will say ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous – he’s putting his head in the sand’. I think Ireland will be right back – they already were this year. Drew with Wales, lost by a point to France and they were ravaged by injuries. Ravaged may be the wrong word but certainly they were denuded of senior leaders. And you look at Leinster, Munster, Connacht – you look at how Ulster are building… there won’t be an issue in Irish rugby in years. It’s nice to write about when we don’t win and, when you don’t win, it’s terrible.

“It’s a tough world we all inhabit because there is no middle-ground. You’re judged on results. Sometimes the margins are so tiny within matches that if you start trying to trot out what those margins are, look at certain decisions or things you haven’t controlled – they’re looked upon as excuses. You take it on the chin and move on.”

It’s interesting that he pinpoints the Irish provinces as a reason to be optimistic for the country’s rugby future. Before agreeing to take over as Italian head coach on a four-year deal last month, some had suggested he was the perfect man to pull Munster out of the abyss.

Conor O’Shea Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Since 2010, he’s been the director of rugby at Harlequins, with whom he won a Challenge Cup in 2011 and an Aviva Premiership title the following year. In January, he confirmed his intention to step down and, shortly after, Munster announced plans to move to a director of rugby model. The rumour mill subsequently went into overdrive.

So, did O’Shea ever consider a move to the province?

“No. Never”, he confirms.

“I’ve never spoken to them about it. I go back with Garrett (Fitzgerald, Munster chief executive) to Irish Students’ trip to Italy in 1990 or 1991, I think. Anthony (Foley) as well – how long have we known each other?”

He may not have been keen on the position but he’s still got plenty of advice on how Munster make the new system work.

“I’ve never believed in titles, personally”, he says.

“It’s what you do within that job. You can be called Head Coach, Assistant Coach, Director of Rugby – call it what you like but what do you do? And, just like a team – and this is just my opinion – you look at the skill-sets that the different people bring. Are they more hands-on? Are they someone that likes being in the background? Are they a facilitator? Are they able to work down through a system? And then the team that works around that will complement it.

Conor OÕShea Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Harlequins knew what they wanted within the role and they had a very clear definition of what that was going to be and that’s what they went to do. Is that the same for every club and every organisation? No. Ultimately though, whoever hires, fires, selects – they’re the boss and everyone has to know that. There can’t be a middle ground – you have to know who’s in charge – and as long as everyone knows that, everyone knows what the hierarchy is. That’s the most important thing.”

Although he takes over as Italian coach in the summer, he still has plenty of rugby left with Harlequins.

They still have domestic play-off hopes while, next weekend, they welcome Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble to The Stoop for a Challenge Cup semi-final.

Is O’Shea a fan of what the former Irish hooker has accomplished at the French side?

“Yeah. Very”, he says.

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Pat Lam and  Bernard Jackman Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“And I’m disappointed that (Grenoble skills coach) Mike Prendergast came over for a few days last year to look at us! He was thinking in advance and I’m not sure if they sent Paul O’Connell in on a recce earlier on in the season!

“I can’t wait to play them because it’s actually very different playing Grenoble. There’s Clermont and Toulouse and they play brilliant rugby but Grenoble are playing a style that’s completely different to a lot of teams. Every French team likes playing with pace but they don’t like it both ways. Grenoble just want to get into a game and it will probably suit us as well so it will be a great game of rugby.”

Naturally, Grenoble’s one-point victory over Connacht is referenced and O’Shea launches into a spirited and effusive description of the Westerners’ remarkable season.

“They’ll be disappointed they didn’t seal it (against Grenoble) because they had two winning positions but what Pat Lam is doing in Connacht… I mean it’s building on Eric and building on Brads… there’s a huge amount of work that’s gone in down there and hopefully they keep on pushing forward”, he says.

New people bring freshness and energy – which is a good thing and they challenge players in different ways. It brings a natural vibrancy to the team. You know the kind of person Pat is and was as a player – uncompromising, humble but who wants to give players the freedom to play. That’s the Island way, the New Zealand way. I’d love to go down and intimately look at what he does day in, day out because with their performances this year, what he’s done is obviously pretty special.

“You look at Matt Healy – I’m irritated I didn’t sign him four or five years ago when he was at Lansdowne. It’s like the property bubble – you look to invest but you realise you should’ve invested a long time ago and taken the risk. At fly-half, I’m really taken with Jack Carty. I really like the look of him. AJ MacGinty – he was impressive in the States when we were out there earlier in the year and he’s going to Sale. All around, they look like they’re playing with a real freedom. And it’s what you look for in any team – they play for their parish, their community.”

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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