'Flattered' Harlequins coach Conor O'Shea rules out Ireland job
If some people wondered whether Conor O'Shea was playing hard to get when he first ruled himself out of the running for the Ireland coaching job, they are not wondering now.
The Harlequins rugby director made it abundantly clear yesterday that he remains every bit as disinterested in the position now it has become vacant as he was before Declan Kidney's abrupt departure earlier this week.
"All the talk is flattering, of course: Ireland is my country," said the man from Limerick, who won 35 caps before embarking on a highly successful career in sports administration. "But I'm going nowhere. My contract is with Harlequins, my focus is on Harlequins, and the only reason people are linking me with Ireland – or any other job – is because the players here perform as they do week after week.
"When you see the talent we're developing at this club, you want to stick around and see it grow. Besides, there are other people out there more qualified for the Ireland role. I'm staying here." That'll be a "no", then.
O'Shea's name has also been mentioned in connection with a second heavy-hitter's vacancy, at the heart of England's elite player development strategy: a job Stuart Lancaster, the current national coach, believes to be pretty much as important as any in the English game. But with Quins tripping the light fantastic in so many different directions – this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final with the two-time European champions Munster is among the very biggest games in the Londoners' long history – there is more chance of their boss agreeing a contract extension at the end of next season than seeking pastures new.
Yet, for all his ability as a team-building, club-developing strategist, O'Shea does not view the Harlequins project as an exercise in long-term planning. "This is professional sport," he said. "It would be nice to talk of three-year plans or five-year plans, but that's not the reality. In this game, you're six games away from the edge of a cliff and six games away from being a hero. The grand plan is about next week, nothing more. I've never really planned anything in my life, and that's why."
It is a mark of O'Shea's success in driving Quins forward that the narrative of this week's meeting with the team from his very own corner of the Emerald Isle has not been dominated by memories of what happened the last time the Londoners met Irish opposition at this stage of the tournament: the narrow, profoundly notorious defeat by Leinster in 2009 that sparked the fake blood affair – a scandal that brought the club to its knees. Did he think twice, or even three times, before associating himself with a tainted operation?
"Quite honestly, I didn't see it as tainted," O'Shea responded. "The debate I had with my wife was over why I'd want to give up a safe job in the public sector with the English Institute of Sport, but I love my work here. While it's an incredible challenge to go through a season as league champions, as the team everyone is analysing and everyone wants to write off and knock off, you wouldn't swap it for anything else when you're faced with a game like this one.
"There are no tomorrows with this kind of match and it will be fought in that spirit. Munster will come to us full on. We'll be there to meet and greet them."
Sitting alongside O'Shea was the other man who encapsulates what it means to be a Harlequin these days: the club captain, Chris Robshaw, who also happens to be captain of England. The flanker missed last Friday's Premiership match at Gloucester, and judging by his tan he did not spend his free time in the freezing shires. Happily, for his club-mates, his mood was far more buoyant than at the end of last month when the trauma of the Six Nations finale in Wales was followed by a sound derby beating at the hands of Saracens.
"I think it's brilliant for our English league that we have three teams in the last eight of the Heineken Cup," he said. "There's quite a few of us who played in that Leinster match four years ago and we all feel we're more mature now, more grown-up in rugby terms.
"I think we're more relaxed too, and I'm glad we're staging this game at our own ground. We could have moved the fixture over the road to Twickenham, but when you look at the Munster team, their more experienced players – the Ronan O'Garas and Donncha O'Callaghans and Paul O'Connells – have played a lot of rugby there. It will feel good to be at the Stoop. We'll play as we always play and we'll give it everything."
The European quarter-final weekend – the best weekend of the season bar none for many union aficionados – begins at Kingsholm this evening when Gloucester take on Biarritz in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup. The Basques won the tournament last year and as it provides them with their only realistic route into next season's competition, they will not be in a mood to spare the horses.
Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy, perhaps the most celebrated Biarritz players since the great Serge Blanco, have both been named in the champions' starting line-up.
Gloucester have recalled the veteran midfielder Mike Tindall, who will lead the side from inside centre. As a consequence there is no room for Billy Twelvetrees, who drops to the bench.