Thursday 23 March 2017

All Blacks visit will end Italian 'honeymoon' for O'Shea

John Fallon

O’Shea took charge over the summer at the outset of a four-year term which he hopes will be just as successful as his stints with London Irish, the English RFU and Harlequins. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
O’Shea took charge over the summer at the outset of a four-year term which he hopes will be just as successful as his stints with London Irish, the English RFU and Harlequins. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

He knows there is every chance of facing an All Blacks backlash in his first home match as Italian coach, but Conor O'Shea is taking a much more long-term approach to his first job as an international coach.

O'Shea took charge over the summer at the outset of a four-year term which he hopes will be just as successful as his stints with London Irish, the English RFU and Harlequins.

The summer tour, which saw them lose to Argentina before gaining wins in Canada and the USA, has given him an introduction to his new world, but he is under no illusions about the task ahead.

But, like everything else the 46-year old former Irish full-back has undertaken, O'Shea gone into this job with gusto. His wife and two daughters have moved to Italy and the family have set up home in the beautiful town of Sirmione, a hugely popular tourist destination on the banks of Lake Garda.

That base, about half an hour from Verona in northern Italy, leaves O'Shea about an hour and a half from Treviso and Zebre's home in Parma, and he has been a regular spectator at their games in the Pro12 and Europe.

"These are exciting times because there's so much to do and there's so many things to try and get your head around and work at. But also it's important when we came over here, we said it right from the start, we embrace the culture here.

"That we, as a family, have a great time because there's no point relocating to Italy and then not enjoying what an incredible country it is. It's getting that balance right and it was a nice long honeymoon over the summer. The tour was brilliant. I really enjoyed touring with the lads in Argentina, Canada and America. But now the All Blacks are coming so that'll be the end of the honeymoon."

O'Shea has been working hard on learning the language and immersing himself in the Italian way of life. "The kids are in school so they're picking up the language quickly. A word a day over the next number of years and they'll be pretty good at the Italian. They will be teaching us rather than the other way round!

"It's a challenge but I'm taking lessons but it's when the Italians start speaking too quickly to me that I struggle. But I'm in Italy now so I'll speak their language. As much as I can, I'll speak the language and it's getting better every day.

"It's just getting that side of it absolutely right and making sure that I'm out and about and meeting people, watching the players, meeting the players, but it has been very enjoyable so far."

They will play New Zealand in Rome on Saturday and then the following week they entertain South Africa in Florence, before meeting Tonga in Padua a week later.

"I've been really taken by the passion and the will to change over here and by the quality of some of the young players over here. But it's not going to happen straight away but there's a lot of talent. If they harness things right here, the game is suited to the Italian psyche."

Five players made their debuts during the summer and while the likes of captain Sergio Parisse returns for his 120th cap on Saturday, O'Shea is also giving youth its fling.

And that's going to continue in the coming years having persuaded Stephen Aboud to leave his role with the IRFU to become youth performance director. Based in Parma, Aboud will oversee the development of players up to U-20 level and that is bound to strengthen Italian rugby.

Former England international Mike Catt is part of O'Shea's coaching team, while South African Brendan Venter, a former colleague at London Irish, is on board for the November games as a consultant.

"We know it is going to take time but there can be big gains made by Italy very quickly. I'm looking forward to it," added O'Shea.

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