Conor O’Shea is a man on a mission on behalf of rugby. His goal is Italy’s redemption after last year the Azzurri finished the Six Nations, once again, bottom of the pile.
He took over in June from demotivated Frenchman Jacques Brunel, whose favourite word “inexplicable” was often used to “explain” Italy’s run of endless defeats.
O’Shea, 46, has set up his camp on Lake Garda, in northern Italy, not far from where Nick Mallett, who coached the Azzurri from 2008 to 2012, had moved to flee the chaos of Rome.
But what a difference between the two: Mallett believed himself to be a missionary in a land of hopeless rugby heathens. Lake Garda was a perfect place to while away the time. The Irish coach instead has set himself quite a target: to change Italian rugby and if this means having to change the Italians themselves, then why not try?
Fully aware of the task ahead, O’Shea has chosen to live in Sirmione, not only because it’s a beautiful spot but also because it’s bang in the centre of Italian rugby territory. He wants to keep everything under his watchful eye.
He has substantial reinforcements; Mike Catt to look after the attack, fellow Irishman Stephen Aboud, to sow the seeds for the future, and South African Brendan Venter to build up the defence.
He needed one strong man on the field, which he found in Sergio Parisse. The Italian skipper took no part in the tour to Argentina and North America in June and the new coach went to visit him in Paris in August. Over a coffee, O’Shea convinced the Stade Francais No.8 that beating the Springboks in November would not be impossible. “A breath of fresh air,” Parisse would later say, “the injection of enthusiasm that Italian rugby had long been missing”.
The captain was caught up in the coach’s optimism and did not lose faith even after Italy were thumped 10-68 by the All Blacks in the first match of the Autumn series in Rome.
“It’s not all bad,” Parisse said after the match, causing some raised eyebrows. “In my career I have worked with many coaches and believe me, we are on the right track, don’t be put off by the result.”
Seven days later, Italy beat South Africa for the first time ever. O’Shea, pictured below, kept a low profile. “Modern rugby is a roller coaster,” he said. “One day you are at the top, the next you are diving down. We need time, we were not so poor before, we are not champions now. We will have more difficult days ahead but today is one to savour.”
Too true: just a week later, with their skipper serving a ban, Italy lost to Tonga and the win against the Springboks looked like being nothing more than the classic flash in the pan.
Now the Azzurri are approaching Six Nations campaign No.18, their coming of age. As in the past, Italy’s two pro-teams, Zebre and Treviso, lie bottom of the Pro12 and the pool of players for the coach to choose from remains very small.
Leonardo Sarto, who proved his worth for Glasgow, will be out for the entire tournament and flanker Alessandro Zanni is another absentee. O’Shea refuses to let his hopes be dampened. In the first meeting with the squad he set out three goals. First, to fight for 80 minutes and be competitive in every match. “I know you would like me to say that we are going to win the Six Nations, or at least a game or two,” he stressed. “I can’t... but I promise we will give everything we’ve got and we want people to watch and say ‘wow!’.”
Second, thinking ahead to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, O’Shea is looking to build a team nobody will be happy to play against, an awkward opposition for anyone.
And finally, he wants to change Italian rugby, to give each player the best possible road to fulfil their potential.
“I can only show what the full picture should look like,” he said. “Then it’s up to everyone to put his piece in the jigsaw. But beating South Africa was very important because it gave everyone a boost.”
With traditionally slow starters Wales first up, the supporters dream about a repeat of 2003 when the Azzurri beat the red dragons in Rome, putting an end to a run of 14 consecutive defeats. O’Shea won’t rise to the bait but the appointment of the canny Venter as Italy’s defence coach means that the pair of them will be plotting Wales’ downfall.
“We all know what is expected of us and nobody is asked to do things that are over and above their ability,” senior player Luke McLean explained. He has been played in almost every position in the back line: Mallett used him at stand-off and at full-back, Brunel put him at full-back and on the wing. O’Shea played him at inside centre in November.
Italian cunning making the best of use of the talent available.