Tokyo is O'Shea's golden ticket

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND: Former Munster winger Greg O’Shea in his Ireland Sevens jersey. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Adversity is nothing new to Greg O'Shea, so after a bit of initial disappointment he took the news that his Olympic dream is on hold for another year in his stride.

Sure, it means he'll have to work out a new contract with the IRFU since his current deal expires in 2020 and it affects some big decisions he's facing on his future, but having turned his back on stardom after co-winning 'Love Island' in pursuit of his goal he won't be deterred.

The Limerick native instantly became the most famous man in Irish rugby after winning the reality television show last year. His Instagram following of 1.2 million is five times that of Johnny Sexton and since returning home he's picked up television and radio work as well as brand ambassadorships.

However, he wants to be known for his rugby and having taken the scenic route to the World Series he is hoping that his fame brings extra exposure to the Sevens set-up.

He and his team-mates owe much to the curtailed version of the game.

Each one of them started out with hopes of provincial contracts and international honours and, one by one, they fell out of the pro game only to be afforded a second chance that takes them all over the world and offers them a shot at Olympic glory.


"I'm not gonna sugarcoat it, every rugby player in Ireland growing up wants to play for Munster or Leinster and then get into the Irish XVs team and we all had that failure for all different reasons," he concedes.

"We came together and we kind of make a joke about it being our baby and we all pulled in toge her and it's worked, because we're a decent team."

O'Shea's Munster career was curtailed by a freak accident in New York during his summer off.

"I was cycling from the beach on a second-hand bike and I fell off it," he recalls. "I kicked the cog of the bike, the sort of disc in the middle, with the back of my heel and it was just like getting a knife and cutting my Achilles in two.

"I couldn't even stand on it, let alone walk. It was a bad phone call to make back home to Ireland."

Despite the injury, the province offered him another year in the Academy, but he couldn't get back to his previous level. "It kind of really messed me up. I've never really got back to where I was, but I'm back playing rugby and all that matters," he says.

The arrival of IRFU performance director David Nucifora brought Sevens into focus and, having ignored the burgeoning circuit for years, the union were playing catch-up.

O'Shea joined a team climbing the ranks from the nether regions of the European Grand Prix circuit in 2017.

Having gone close in 2018, they managed to take the final step on to the World Series a year ago in Hong Kong, a reward for the long slog.

"It was so emotional and such a relief," he says of the final step of a long journey largely taken away from the spotlight. "We finally worked all the way up, a lot of guys that had been dropped from Academies and pulled from a club system you could classify us as a team of, for want of a better word, rejects. We've all been dropped by someone, somewhere along the way.

"It's tough because we put everything into going to a place like say Poland and we win the European leg and we come home and no one knows or no one cares.

"That's not Irish people's fault. It isn't a well-known sport. But, if someone say went away and won a European Championship in golf or soccer, it would be all over the place.


"So it's tough to swallow that pill in a sense, but it's just the way the sport is.

"A big goal of mine is when I started getting this kind of overnight fame that I got from 'Love Island', I thought I'd be able to help promote the sport.

"It's a great spectator sport and it'd be great to give it a bit of recognition that it deserves.

"Some incredible athletes, some of the best I've seen, play the Sevens even though people just don't know about it."

In July last year, he entered the 'Love Island' villa and by the time he emerged, his world was a very different place. Fame beckoned, but O'Shea quickly realised where his priorities lay.

"A lot of people kind of told me I was making a stupid decision; throwing away the golden ticket of making millions and being the 'It-couple', going to all these red carpets events but it just didn't sit right with me," he explains.

"After I got out of 'Love Island' and I was like I have to go home - I've training in two weeks. It was just never an option not to go home. I got kind of got shunned for that for a while by people over in Britain and even here.

"But I'm happy with what I'm doing. I would never felt right myself if I just left the boys and didn't give it my all to try and get on the World Series, compete well and get to the Olympics.

"The UK has nearly completely forgotten about me. Ireland's kind of picked me up. I think people appreciate I came home and stuck to my roots.

"Staying focused with all these other bits alongside rugby is kind of difficult, but the lads in the team are the first people to call me out if I'm starting to even slowly get cocky. I love that."


The dream is on hold due to the shutdown and O'Shea and his team-mates are training from home, catching up on video and making the best of things.

After six rounds, Ireland are in tenth on the World Series standings and they were meant to be building towards the June Olympics qualifier. Now that's all up in the air and, while disappointment was the first reaction, the 25-year-old hopes the delay will benefit Ireland.

"Initially we were down about it. But now we're looking at as having time to improve and get better, faster, stronger because we're only fresh," he says.

"We're babies on the World Series. We need more time at that level to have a proper crack up getting to the Olympics. It's actually kind of a blessing.

"Call a spade a spade, there's not much comparison financially between the XVs and Sevens. That's not a complaint, it's just simple.

"We all love it and we keep coming back to play and then the (Olympic) cherry was dangled in front of us. And we have the opportunity to do that now if we win one more tournament. Imagine calling yourself an Olympian, it's just the stuff of dreams."

It remains in that realm for the time being, but when sport eventually returns O'Shea is determined to make it a reality.