Conor O’Shea; on the Italian Job, and facing the All Blacks

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Conor O'Shea; The Italian Job,
PADOVA, ITALY - NOVEMBER 17: Conor O'Shea head coach of Italy looks on prior to the international friendly between Italy and Australia at Stadio Euganeo on November 17, 2018 in Padova, Italy. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Plenty of water has passed under the roman bridges of Italy, since Nick Mallett coached the Azzurri and declared to the media, “Italians no good for rugby”. That was the same Rugby World Cup winning coach who decided to switch world-class flanker Mauro Bergamasco from openside to half-back! Gladly, current head coach Conor O’Shea is not as verbose, or destructive.

Nine years since the South African coach attempted to leave his own mark, now the Azzurri are undergoing an evolution involving the entire developing system, which will bring the Federation to settle into the Tier One nations by rights – and not only via a Six Nations agreement. The Federazione Italiana Rugby is developing into a good state, with thanks to Irishman, Conor O’Shea.

Guest contributor Melita Martorana was at the Italian Rugby teams’ press conference this week and heard from the Italian team’s coach on his goals, his plans to tackle the All Blacks on Saturday, his adaptation into the Azzurri culture and the way of life on the Continent.

Conor O’Shea and ‘The Italian Job’

O’Shea – known as CoS, a friendly nicknamed by the Italians – has made himself at home in Roma. He has acquired all the communication skills needed to survive a high emotional environment: he widely uses his hands while speaking, he moves forward when making a point, he’s keen for you to understand and displays a charisma when he locks his blues eyes into yours, to make sure he has your full attention.

When asked about his intentions, CoS is forthright and crystal clear in his reply. “I want the boys to show the world what they are capable of. I want them to be imposing, to be ruthless.

“We have quality and we have talent, they have to show this talent.”

O’Shea and his team will need to demonstrate that promise on Saturday, when they host the current Rugby World Cup holders New Zealand.

But for this group, handling the pressure and public expectation must be managed, as well as the opposition. O’Shea told Last Word on Rugby “I want them to be aware it is a special occasion but at the same time I don’t want them to feel pressure and have too much expectation.

“The players need to focus on their own performance, so I’ll be happy if they scrum well, if their lineout is tidy, if they defend well and attack with intent. And most of all, never, ever, say die”.

Showing the passion which any Italian would be proud of, his term with the Azzurri has shown that he has adapted into the culture, as much as into the playing group. O’Shea has introduced himself in Italian, since his very first press conference held for him as head coach, three years ago. You have to be impressed by the man and his commitment to the Italian job.

The former Irish international, who collected 35 caps as fullback since debuting in 1994, took the helm of the Azzurri in 2016 after coaching the London Irish and Harlequins Premiership Rugby sides. Three seasons on from his debut in 2016, and he still loves the challenge. “I love the country, I love the people. I’m just trying to build something that can be a legacy for these young men, and those who will come after them”.

Developing the Italian Rugby system a goal for Conor O’Shea

The Italian rugby system and ‘rugby environment’ is a bit of a mystery – even for those who have worked in the Federation, and since the invitation to participate in the (newly developed) Six Nations. That team debuted with an astonishing win against Scotland in 2000, at Stadio Flaminio.

A great start, but have since declined to a low of 15 consecutive losses since O’Sheas was appointed [their last win was on February 28, 2015]. But if you know a little bit about development, you can’t point the finger solely at the head of the coach, without scratching the surface to investigate the reasons behind the demise.

At the core of all problems, there have been years of bad administration and internal political fighting between different lines of thinking. Roma (the HQ) versus Veneto (the supreme region of rugby stronghold in Italy). That topic has monopolized the Italian Rugby board elections for the last 10 years, have kept the Guinness PRO14 franchises’ development at a near standstill. It has left the Eccellenza division being almost abandoned to its own devices, and the Federation has not invested money and effort into updating the rugby development programme; to upskill the coaches. In fact, they are still using workshops and World Rugby recognized coaching course material prepared in the late 90’s. Yes, you read it right!

Yet for all those issues, here comes Conor O’Shea. Prepared to take on the ‘Italian job’ and to influence others to join him. He took Steve Aboud, former Irish Union Development Manager with him, to look at changing the administration. He negotiates for Kiwi Kieran Crowley’s appointment as Treviso coach. Cos pushes for Micheal Bradley as Zebre head coach. Appointments that have shown results, with those teams collecting regular wins, in the Celtic League and in Challenge Cup fixtures.

Changes to administration all part of the Italian Job

In their short tenure, O’Shea and Aboud have also needed to act with the intention to improve the system. Closing 80% of the 11 regional academies around the country, working to bring Italian Rugby Union into the 21st century. But that road is long and the challenge is tough. When asked how he feels the process is going, O’Shea answers that, “we are still far from sitting at the table of the ‘big teams’ but that is my goal.”

A highlight for CoS and his players was in 2016, when they defeated the Springboks – this weekend, another major scalp would be an incredible accomplishment – and the coach and players have the potential, and need to display that at stadio Olimpico on Saturday.

“I [want] to work so we can play a style rugby that other nations take notice” he extensively explained to us on Thursday in Roma before the last test match of the year, against current World Champions, the All Blacks.

“In 2018 our challenge was to win but it is hard when you play at the level that we play with the best teams in the world and you don’t get an opportunity. However last week in Padova against Australia, we showed that we can compete and impose ourselves”.

Italy show great promise in match against the Wallabies

Italy held the Australians in their own half for about 30 minutes. At times, they were dominant yet, they lost momentum when two tries were disallowed. Soon after, the opposition scored to take the lead and then, win the game: “I was furious in that game – adds O’Shea – that second try that was disallowed by Tito Tebaldi stole our momentum. I’m not saying we would have won, I’m saying we would have been up 7-0 and the match could have taken a different turn”.

O’Shea wasn’t shy to express his disappointment on the referee’s performance in the post-match press conference, but five days on, he also recognizes that the biggest problem of the Italian job, is to match the intensity and tempo of the big boys: “In New Zealand, you call it high metabolic intensity training. (He points to how the All Blacks can sustain their levels for 80 minutes).That has to become a habit for us. At some stage, we mentally switch off. We must work more on avoiding mental fatigue”.

Basically, the Italians are not used to playing for 80 minutes at the same intensity, and mental demand, as some of the southern hemisphere players do. That is due to Super Rugby being close to the International level. Players can then easily step-up to The Rugby Championship, or the ultimate goal – the Rugby World Cup in Japan. “This is something we must work on collaborating with our two franchises in the PRO14.

“Making sure our players face these standards week in, and week out.”

“My feeling is that in the last two decades when other nations were starting to invest and grow, our nation stood still. Our franchises became weaker.”

Italy on the cusp of a big step forward

I do believe we are on the brink of making a big step up towards the big table. The stronger we get, the more other nations will take notice. We played against Japan and Georgia, matches that we had to win for the union and its international political weight but against Australia, we showed we can create problems when playing our style.”

Martorana observes that it is unreal that, after 20 years into the professional era, 18 years of Six Nations appearances, 40 million euros annual budget [income returned annually from the tournament], However, even with those riches, Italy still encounter financial problems which cannot allow them to align with the most powerful squads. O’Shea explains, “Money is always a struggle. At the domestic level, at franchise level and national level.

“We have only just been able to upgrade our GPS system, which is now working to improve our new medical programme. It finally helps me to monitor players’ performances in training and in a match. To study workload and make a true assessment of players injury profiles. It leads to draw programmes which can replicate high-intensity situations in training.”

That was something that former All Blacks skills coach Wayne Smith had suggested during his two-week visit in June, before the summer internationals. “Wayne helped us to make sure we were on the right track,” and was money well spent, to capture some of the ideas and to motivate players to reach new heights.

High Intensity training is one area O’Shea can control, and he keeps saying “physically we can match any player out there, try our guys in a [S&C] test and they will put up the numbers but, put them to play 80 minutes and the mental fatigue will wear them off. They switch off during a match.”

Pressure on Italy…..and now they face the All Blacks!

With poor results and an increased public dissatisfaction, the pressure to make things right might come to play in Conor’s mind, yet the Irishman with his warm smile brushes it off like dust on a shelf. “I’m used to pressure. I started looking at my dad who was a top footballer. Then I became an international in 1994. It doesn’t really affect me.

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea during a press conference at Soldier Field in Chicago, USA. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“I havelearnedt that people with no accountability, always have all the answers. They have no idea what is going on (he jokes). We do what we do to grow the game, you can’t pretend we are winning here and now. Sport is sport. Scrutiny is scrutiny (he gasps). Let’s get on with it.”

Now comes the most dominating team in the history of rugby. They will play at Stadio Olimpico for the third time in six years. The Azzurri needed to win against Georgia and they won. They needed to play well against Australia and they played very well indeed. Now, the toughest challenge of them all.

So what’s the goal for this last international of the season? “The Italians love to show off” – says O’Shea. The respected coach will be sure that his side is at their peak, to take every opportunity to impress observers, and to please the rugby public.

The Italian Job will be to defeat the All Blacks, though O’Shea is very well aware they likely will nott. He just want his men to play well, and over the course of him speaking with guest contributor Melita Martorana he put lot of emphasis on that never ever say die.

Fans of the Azzurri will be delighted if they can match the men in black, and bring a smile to the face of Conor O’Shea.

 

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