Sunday 16 June 2019

O'Shea Italian job beginning to bear fruit but it's a tough time for Azzurri

Making progress: Conor O’Shea. Photo: Sportsfile
Making progress: Conor O’Shea. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

As the camera panned to Conor O'Shea sitting in the stand at Stadio Monigo last weekend, you couldn't help but feel that he would have preferred any team other than Leinster to be arriving in Treviso before Italy kick off their November series.

A wounded Leinster put Benetton to the sword but O'Shea will be mindful that up to this point, the Italian side have enjoyed a fine season.

Carrying that momentum into Italy's four games will be crucial as the Azzurri face a tough month.

Like Ireland, Italy have placed a greater emphasis on next weekend's game, at home to Georgia, which has been reflected in the under-strength team selected by O'Shea to take on his home country in Chicago.

A defeat against what is a vastly-improving Georgian outfit would heap the pressure on O'Shea, less than a year out from the World Cup.

The build-up is likely to be dominated by people questioning Italy's place in the Six Nations and if Georgia were to beat them on home soil, it would further the arguments of those who feel Italy do not merit their place in the competition.

Confidence should be high within the squad, however. While Benetton were nowhere near their best against Leinster, they have made big improvements this season.

They are no longer the whipping boys, which is summed up by the fact that they sit above the Dragons and the Kings in the PRO14 table.

For the first time in years, there is joined-up thinking from the top down and the systems that have been put in place since O'Shea's arrival two years ago are beginning to bear fruit.

Fellow Dubliner Stephen Aboud, who previously worked as the IRFU's former technical director, is also doing great work in Italy.

The underage teams are now holding their own and have in fact sprung a couple of surprises in the last year - the Italy U-17s beat France, the U-18s defeated England and the U-20s secured another record high, top-eight finish at the Junior World Cup, one place above Ireland.

Anyone who watched the U-20s narrowly lose to Ireland in Donnybrook last February will know that the end result might have been altogether different had Italy not had a man sent off so early in the contest. Also, it must be said that their style of rugby was a joy to watch.

Zebre are making steady progress too, under another Irishman Michael Bradley. They enjoyed a thumping win last weekend over an Edinburgh side who are making great strides of their own.

Zebre's victory was their third of the campaign, while they have racked up bonus points in each of those wins.

Last season they managed seven wins and four try-scoring bonus points.

The introduction of the South African teams to the PRO14 has taken the heat off the Italians somewhat, and O'Shea's task is to build on that.

Even allowing for the fact that the majority of Ireland's front-line players didn't make the trip this week, Italy face a tall order at Solider Field.

O'Shea, however, must use the opportunity as a chance to experiment, just as Joe Schmidt is doing.

The clash against Georgia will give the former Ireland full-back a real sense of where his side stand ahead of Japan, while they also host Australia and New Zealand in November.

Irish Independent

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