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Six Nations Italy v Ireland: Conor O’Shea leads way as duo aim to revitalise Italian game

By David Kelly

It's improved, but it’s still brutal. Conor O’Shea refers to his lessons in Italian; he could just as easily be describing the Azzurri’s latest Six Nations implosion.

Fluent in the language of resistance for an hour against Wales, they fluffed their lines in a final-quarter meltdown and now host Ireland on Saturday.

Well might the former Ireland full-back mutter, ‘Molto a fare, molto a fatto’. It is a phrase he has used repeatedly since taking up his post with the Italian Federation last year.

“So much done and so much to do.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor by merely one person.

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O’Shea has been charged with the onerous responsibility of not only transforming the reputation of the under-performing national side but also instituting the mammoth structural changes required to revolutionise the sport in the country from the bottom up.

“I can talk all we want but the results will judge it,” said O’Shea. “The planning in the background will be to make Italy as competitive as can be. We’re not going to win the Six Nations or the World Cup.

“In the short-term we want to be competitive on the field, in the medium-term we want to go to the next World Cup and have unbelievably difficult players to play against. And in the long-term, change the pathways and make the necessary changes to the system.

“These are incredible people given what they have put up with and what they give. We need to give them a platform for their potential.”

It is a twin-track approach and O’Shea’s history of switching between track-suited excellence at Harlequins and the shirt-and-tie skills honed both there and at the English Institute of Sport marked him down as an excellent choice.

He has drafted in former colleagues such as Brendan Venter and Mike Catt to help with the senior side but, before him, the Italians had called upon Stephen Aboud, the IRFU’s former technical director, who did more than most to lay the foundations for the sport’s remarkable success story in this country.

Aboud had forged strong links with the country and they contacted him when they were beginning their search for a head coach; little did he know his recommendation of his former pupil would result in a reunion.

“He was signed, sealed and delivered before I joined,” he said. “I’d been keen to take a career break myself, I was getting stale, needed a challenge.”

Aboud’s reputation attracted other offers too and he also pondered a return to teaching in Belvedere. But the IRFU weren’t keen to let him go. Little wonder.

In 1993, along with Willie Anderson, he formulated the foundations, the amateur forerunners to the hugely successful provincial Academy conveyor belts that have backboned professional rugby.

They couldn’t call them Academies in order to avoid any hint, heaven forbid, that players might be getting paid.

“These were the days when getting a draw with Scotland marked a successful year,” Aboud recalled.

“People would see you drive into the office on a Monday with a Nissan logo on the side of the car and flip you the finger because Ireland lost on the Saturday.”

Irish rugby didn’t immediately reap the fruits of Aboud’s vision; the point was to do things “in the right way over a long time rather than the wrong way in a short time”.

Ireland’s growing pains could be viewed through an Italian prism then; Italy were thriving when the game turned pro and achieved a hat-trick of victories against the Irish.

Ireland’s best players were in England, European Cup progress was negligible and head coaches came and went through revolving doors in those dark days, also featuring an embarrassing World Cup exit to Argentina when every other home nation reached the quarter-finals.

O’Shea was Ireland’s full-back in Lens, ignored in the back-three as his side myopically subsided against the Pumas.

Yet within a decade Irish clubs won multiple European titles and the country a Grand Slam, widely popularising the sport here.

The Irish duo’s job in Italy faces a similar uphill, long-term task, even if the parallels are slightly simplistic broad strokes.

The Italian federation has invested €4.5m in 32 Centres of Formation around the country for teenagers and developed nine Academies for the various regions.

“It’s about trying to get results to keep everybody happy,” Aboud added.

“You saw the wow factor against South Africa and New Zealand in Chicago, people don’t worry about the structures then!

“I remember that in the IRFU when we did well at under-age when the senior teams weren’t doing well and that’s probably why I wasn’t well known, because I was working with people.

“It’s consistency of improvement. Anyone can do a Toulon but you can’t do that at international level, you have to develop people.”

He draws a simple analogy to describe their approach; his six-year deal indicates the importance of his task, O’Shea is contracted for four.

“Conor is carving a nice sculpture at the top of a nice iceberg and everyone can evaluate that. I’m moving the iceberg,” he said.

“But you can’t do it on your own, it will only move as fast as the people are going to help you. And you want to make sure that they are not pushing against you, but together. The more you move it, the more people will see the sculpture.

“That’s the challenge and we need to find the right strategies with the resources we have, not the resources we don’t have. We can’t panic about not losing, we need to be positive. Italy recognise that now.”

It is no quick fix but O’Shea believes the culture and passion of the people demands, belatedly, sustainable development; their club whipping boys, Zebre and Treviso, as well as the under-performing national side, are simply not fit for purpose as it stands, aside from occasional coups.

It helped his cause that he struck immediate gold with a November success against South Africa; that it was followed by a numbing loss against Tonga vividly illustrated the perennial difficulties.

O’Shea argued: “What you read about us is disrespectful because it doesn’t take account of this country’s proud rugby history, we shouldn’t let it wither on the vine.

“I see all these great pictures on the wall and think of the great teams in the ‘90s and Sergio Parisse now. We don’t have the money but we have to invest properly and nourish it.

“We haven’t yet got the structures there to achieve at the highest level. The pathway is right but the systems are not.

“We need to fulfil every bit of quality and ensure the system becomes professionalised.”

Aboud will be in the trenches; O’Shea is the front man.

“I’ve had him since he was 19. He’s mad, such a positive guy, sometimes I have to tell him stop being so energetic! He has the admin background in the Sports Institute and great rugby success with Harlequins,” he said. “He likes talking, but prefers doing.”

His adopted team may lose against his homeland but hope springs in the eternal city.

“They say it’s harder in your 40s to learn a new language,” the 46-year-old said.

“Speaking Italian is the easy bit. Getting everyone to listen much harder.

“I’d love to come back for a beer having felt we contributed to something. Rome in the springtime is a special place.”

It may be some time before he sees the light.

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