As the idiom goes ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ but the pressures of modern sport do not normally sit comfortably with slow, methodical long-term planning; results are expected with immediacy.
But as Conor O’Shea assesses the job ahead of him in charge of Italy, he is attempting to marry the perfectionist nature of careful, precise work with the pressure of delivering in the annual battle for Six Nations supremacy.
O’Shea’s bike-riding in and around the picturesque outskirts of Verona have been on hold of late partly due to the plummeting temperatures but also the time-consuming magnitude of the task facing him with Italy. He has split his role into three different segments.
“There’s so much to do, it is a big job,” O’Shea told ESPN. “There’s a lot to change. There are so many positives about rugby in this country and so many things that need to change to fulfil the potential. We’re going to start putting together the structures — but there’s a short, medium and long-term plan.
Conor O’Shea greets Italy fans at Rome’s Sport Center Onesti. (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
“In the short term, we are making sure we’re more competitive. In the medium term, we want to get to the Rugby World Cup and ensure we’re a team no one wants to play, like the Argentina team I played against in 1999. That team signified the start of a new generation but they experienced great days and tough days.
“And in the long term we will make changes to the system to allow these players to come through and fulfil their ability.”
When O’Shea left Harlequins after six years to take up the Italy role in June, he inherited a group of fiercely talented players, who had become exposed far too often to external negativity. They finished the 2016 Six Nations with the infamous wooden spoon; the previous year’s World Cup saw them exit at the pool stages.
Their form had led some to call for promotion-relegation playoffs to be introduced to the Six Nations as a way of determining whether Italy were worthy of their top table status in the championship. O’Shea knew the Italy job would not be easy. But having developed a pathway in his former post at Harlequins which saw them frequently field teams with large numbers of home-grown talent, he knows that to develop long-term success, firm foundations are a necessity.
“We have to make changes that will benefit not just us but the longer-term changes,” O’Shea said. “We can help with that — but that’s for longer down the road. We have a responsibility to lead the way.
“I was at a board meeting the other day and I said the two most important people are Daniele Pacini — head of grassroots rugby — and Stephen Aboud — head of technical direction for player and coach development.
Brendan Venter will act as Conor O’Shea defence guru through to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
“The talent is definitely there. Go to Petrarca, Calvisano or Viadana and there are thriving rugby communities which we need to nurture, not kill. You have to harness the young guys, get them feeling valued so they have everything to succeed.
“The pathway is also there. Look at the Under-18s who beat South Africa and France last year. We have to focus on their off-field conditioning to ensure they have that explosiveness at the top level but there are good young players coming through.”
Aboud, the former head of technical direction at the Irish Rugby Football Union, was brought in alongside O’Shea when his appointment was confirmed last March as was World Cup-winner Mike Catt as backs coach. O’Shea has since added ex-Saracens coach Brendan Venter as defence supremo and also has forwards coach Giampiero de Carli on his coaching staff.
They play an active role in coach development and visiting clubs in the Eccellenza — the national league in Italy — and their two PRO12 franchises Zebre and Treviso.
Zebre have come in for a kicking recently on the back of their poor PRO12 form — they are currently at the foot of the table — and a Champions Cup campaign that saw them ship 49 tries in six games. But O’Shea is optimistic about their prospects.
He is an ardent supporter of having two Italian teams in the PRO12 and draws parallels between Zebre and where current champions Connacht were back in 2012, when they lost 14 games on the bounce. They got their house in order and success followed.
He’s also taken heart from the Glasgow Warriors. “I really enjoyed listening to [Glasgow Warriors coach] Gregor Townsend the other day,” O’Shea said. “Twenty years ago, Glasgow were losing by 80 points, 10 years ago one Scottish franchise went bust and Glasgow and Edinburgh were going nowhere but come 2016, both Glasgow and Edinburgh are into European quarterfinals and Scotland are looking better. It takes time.”
Conor O’Shea alongside his Italy captain Sergio Parisse (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The two Italian franchises are integral to the mid-term plan of being a competitive outfit at the next World Cup in Japan.
“You look at Carlo Canna, Michele Campagnaro, Marcello Violi, Edoardo Padovani, Mata Mbanda, Andrea Lovotti, Ornel Gega, Marco Fuser, you keep them together and the Under 20 team — same as last year’s — and with the right structures, they will only improve ahead of 2019.
“We are at a crossroads in Italian rugby and the squad, the management and I have a huge responsibility to ensure it’s going down the right path. The team will give everything for 80 minutes but these next four years are a massive moment. “By 2019, teams will not want to be drawn in our pool.”
Since O’Shea took the job, Italy have won three and lost three. His first three matches were on the tour of America where they left behind some of the more experienced players like Sergio Parisse and defeated the USA and Canada but fell 30-24 to Argentina, a game which saw a last-minute barrage on the Pumas’ line.
At the autumn internationals an expected defeat to the All Blacks followed, but then came a historic afternoon in Florence where South Africa were beaten for the first time. The three-Test programme finished with a disappointing defeat to Tonga.
The Azzurri are still wearing that Tonga defeat and the new-found belief in the camp off the back of the Boks defeat will be carried into the Six Nations.
Here is the short-term aspect of O’Shea’s job. For six weeks, he will park thoughts of improving systems and focus on the here and now; the 32 players he has picked for the championship, a side captained by the wonderful, ageless Parisse.
His message to the players has been simple: “I’ll be judged by others by results but I’ll judge them on performance and work ethic over 80 minutes.”
Conor O’Shea takes a high ball in training, reliving his days as a fullback for Ireland. (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
He is excited by fly-half Canna and says Europe needs to take notice of loose-head Andrea Lovotti. Italy are always good for upsetting the apple cart, but gone are the days of one-off wins. O’Shea wants consistency, application and constant improvement.
“Parisse, Simone Favaro, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Lorenzo Cittadini want to win matches here and now. We want to be unbelievably competitive in the Six Nations and it all starts with Wales. The Ireland game will mean a lot on a personal level but we are just taking it one game at a time.
“I want us to focus on 80 minutes where everyone sees a team — win or lose — that’s fighting until the bitter end. We do that and we’ll get better.
“We can’t just wave a magic wand and do a, b and c immediately but we have to show people where we are going. If we can only do ‘a’ at the moment and then turn attention to ‘b’ then that’s fine, but we’ll have a plan.
“We’ll have days like South Africa and we’ll have other days that aren’t so good. But we’ll have more days like South Africa with that level and consistency of performance and standard.”
Italian rugby won’t be solved in a day, but O’Shea is already taking the right steps to drive the Azzurri to the next level.
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