Assessing the Italian Job
Six months into Azzurri role, Conor O'Shea sees the potential to change a nation's rugby mindset
When Conor O'Shea took the Italy job, he talked of bringing the team to the highest point in their history. For now, that entails securing a respectable finish in the RBS Six Nations.
The Limerick-born former Ireland full-back, who coached Harlequins to an Aviva Premiership title in 2012, has improved Italy's fortunes in the six months since he swapped the Stoop for Rome.
Although the Azzurri experienced the familiar sting of defeat on his bow - a tight loss to Argentina in Santa Fe - and were later humbled 68-10 by New Zealand, they have claimed a major scalp.
Few expected two-time world champions South Africa to struggle in Florence in November, but the Springboks were stunned as Italy registered a first victory against one of the 'big three' southern-hemisphere nations.
O'Shea's brand of creative rugby had helped the world's 14th-best team recover from a first-half deficit to launch their renaissance and, guarded by a much-improved defence and inspired by the emerging talent of Carlo Canna, Italy fired a warning shot for the spring.
O'Shea, who succeeded Jacques Brunel, is unearthing the latent tenacity in his squad. "This is only the start," he said after the South Africa game. "We have a lot to do to change rugby in Italy, but we have the capability, talent and potential to do it.
"We made a lot of mistakes and we had some problems with discipline. But the sheer heart and courage . . . they weren't just brave, they were just heroic."
Having picked up a head of steam, and with accomplished defensive coach Brendan Venter recruited on the eve of the tournament, Italy are further boosted by a two-game opening home stand.
Wales, fellow November winners against South Africa, but in a state of flux after Sam Warburton handed the captain's armband to Alun Wyn Jones, are first up at the Stadio Olimpico, while O'Shea's countrymen Ireland visit the Eternal City on the second weekend.
Revenge will be a motivating factor for last year's wooden spoonists, smashed 58-15 in Dublin in March, and the third Rome fixture sees old foes France come to town.
Italy's fourth-placed finish four years ago was built on their Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy-clinching opening triumph over Les Bleus and, with the rearguard now operating at a level that should prevent a repeat of the 28-0 capital embarrassment of 2015, the Azzurri are fit to challenge France.
O'Shea's return to England will, of course, be extremely tough as Eddie Jones's defending champions look to tighten the screw on Europe following a dominant 12 months, but Scotland are beatable at Murrayfield.
Bringing the points for and against columns closer to parity will be O'Shea's priority in his first Six Nations campaign as a boss, but his young Italy squad are capable of achieving much more.
"People talk about marginal gains, that lovely phrase, but there are massive gains to make before we get marginal," O'Shea told the Telegraph in October.
"You look at Simone Favaro, Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alessandro Zanni - who is on 99 caps - they want to win or do something towards the tail end of their career that will not just be a footnote.
"Some of that might be achieving incredible wins, some of that might be just be changing the mindset of Italian rugby. That's the goal."
Sunday Indo Sport