No quick fix to a long-term problem
Conor O'Shea wants to transform Italy's culture at academy level, but he needs to deliver results
You will struggle to avoid articles about Conor O'Shea in the run-up to Rome on Saturday. Where he is quoted he will talk a lot without saying anything much - a common goal with lots of men in his position - and when comment is made on his career to date it will highlight a cv coloured by variety and steady progress. In a life ordered and planned, all the bits combine to present a man who is respected and valued in the game.
What is unclear is how much use any of this will be in a country way behind in its payments on potential. When Italy made their debut in the Championship - the first day of the Six Nations in 2000 - O'Shea was playing his last game for Ireland: a miserable 50-point hammering at Twickenham.
Seventeen years on and he is tucked up in northern Italy, immersing himself in the culture and trying to figure out a way forward for the nation's rugby. His mantra is that the good stuff will come after he is gone. The reality is that the Italians - not unlike the Scots when Matt Williams went over there from Leinster in 2003 - don't want to be told it's a long-term fix. They've been at this gig for way longer than the average pro's career, and need a sweetener to tide them over.
The background is grim: Italy have won just 12 of their 85 games in the Six Nations. Their primary supply line comes from their Guinness Pro 12 clubs, Treviso and Zebre, who are as challenged in that competition as Italy are in the Championship.
On day one, in 2000, the lead item on the sports news was Italy's whirlwind start against Scotland, in Rome. Since then, mostly downhill.
Perhaps the bleakest aspect of Italy's participation is how little progress they have made in sorting out their structures, despite the time they have spent at the top table. O'Shea has a big input in trying to fix this - an enormous challenge - but currently his every waking moment has to be taken up with the Test squad.
Brian Ashton, who coached O'Shea in Ireland and whose career took him to Italy as a player, is interested in how this is all going to work out. "What Conor's got to do along with the other guys is try and develop a national culture and environment of excellence, based on the reality of what they've got," he says. "Looking back, ever since they've been in the Six Nations, Italy have had a history of foreign coaches imposing different ways of playing the game.
"I think the way forward for Conor is to find an Italian way. And I wonder if any of the previous coaches have ever sat down and really engaged with some of the senior players to try and discover what that really is, how the Italians want to play the game, how they feel they are best suited to international rugby. I think to try and impose a style as a foreign coach is wrong."
No matter what O'Shea does, he will be hamstrung by the narrow playing base available to him. By comparison, Joe Schmidt is swimming in options in every position. In any case, while O'Shea is the high-profile appointment above the line, below it is a man who was signed on a longer contract. Fishing Stephen Aboud from the IRFU on a six-year deal - coincidentally, Ashton, with Ireland, is the only other man we can think of in the modern game who was ever afforded such longevity - represents a greater time investment than the four years in O'Shea. With good reason: as the technical director of everything feeding into the national squad he has the bigger challenge by far.
Aboud doesn't want for technical insight. He had grown weary of the IRFU and its ways, and enjoyed long and positive connections with the Italians. They had embraced a style of play which he used as a template on his coaching courses in Ireland. However, making wholesale changes in a country where winning is a much bigger deal than sport itself - and the rugby lads don't win much - and where sport is not part of the school curriculum, is more like trying to clear a mountain of rubble out of the road with your bare hands than pushing a rock uphill.
So what does he have to work with? Rugby has real roots in the north of the country. It also has a foothold in the areas surrounding Milan and Rome, but no real presence in either city.
Three years ago in these pages we spoke to former Italy manager Carlo Checcinato about the 32 Centres of Formation that had been set up around the country. Aimed primarily at lads born in 1998 and '99, he was full of hope that it would create a steady stream of players who would now be aged 17-19.
"We have 1,000 players involved across the whole of Italy," he said. "Part of the skills can be taught but we want to see which ones of the guys really want to make it. That will be the most important thing in the end."
The most important thing at the start is that the centres are tooled up for the job. It's interesting that when the IRFU opted for regional academies in this country, where previously the process had been centralised, Aboud and Willie Anderson were against the idea, fearing a diminution of quality. And they were right, in Munster most conspicuously, but the idea of retaining it all through head office could never work either.
Brian Ashton had a huge influence on England's National Academy, and he wonders what standards the Italians are setting in their development programme.
"I'd ask the question: are they really Centres of Excellence?" he asks. "Or are they, as Eddie Jones last week described the English academies, secure environments that don't provide any players who are leaders in any way, shape or form?
"Secure environments don't provide leaders, which I've known for a long, long time. In most sports it's probably the same. So if the Italian ones are places where players are probably not going to aspire to excellence, it's not going to be good enough to be successful on the international stage. This is where Steve Aboud I think has a massive influence. And in the longer term, bigger than Conor has."
Ashton has always looked uncomfortable with the notion of standing still, of reflecting with satisfaction on a machine that was purring along nicely. His default was to start fiddling with the bits and pieces to see how it could go further, faster and in other directions. Because if he didn't do it then a competitor would.
"I think the Italians need to be developing a game-changing environment mentality," he argues. "They need to be looking to the game of the future and how they can play in that. So those Centres of Excellence need to be futuristic and not concerned with producing players just to play the way Italy are playing at the moment. Otherwise that's a flat line that doesn't take them anywhere, does it?
"They need to develop leaders who can play the game better than anyone in Italy has played it before. They don't want to be creating the next Sergio Parisse, they want to be creating the next one who's better than him. It's the sort of thing I did with the English National Academy in 2000, and quite a few of those lads went on and are playing for England at the moment.
"I did a lot of work with Rodney Marsh, the former Australia wicketkeeper, who was with England Cricket Academy at the same time. I went to see him before I set up the rugby academy and he said: 'If you've got an academy that doesn't have as its main focus that you're going to change the way the game is played, and you're going to lead the playing environment, worldwide, there's no point in having one'.
"If all you're going to do is produce players to play the same way as the national team at the moment, it's a complete waste of time. In a few years' time other teams will change the way they're playing and increase the gap on the rest of the world. And while at the moment for Italy that may seem a giant leap for mankind, I think that's Stephen Aboud's job. He has to have the longer-term view."
An Italian colleague was full of hope when he spoke to us last week, describing how Aboud was working on getting a rugby programme into some Italian schools, which would be ground-breaking. "It's the first time everyone in Italian rugby is pulling in the same direction," he said.
They will need conditioning and perseverance for that job. And it's in everyone's interests that they succeed.
Sunday Indo Sport