Sunday 22 September 2019

Crowley pays credit to O'Shea as Italian renaissance gathers momentum

Kieran Crowley. Photo: Sportsfile
Kieran Crowley. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

There is a time in every sportsperson's life when they need to focus on what they can do, rather than what they cannot.

And a time when they need to realise that, if they had more time, they could have been able to do some things even better.

Maybe when Kieran Crowley first met the players in Treviso, he saw something of his younger self, the one who yearned to be better if only he got the chance. If only there were a moment.

Crowley was an All Black sure - number 848 - but more often than not he had to wait for opportunity to knock.

True, as back-up to John Gallagher in 1987, playing a pool game against Argentina, he'd already secured a World Cup winner's medal. But he wanted more. Every All Black is a great player; not every player is a great All Black.

So often in the shadow of the inestimable Gallagher, the 1991 World Cup semi-final was Crowley's big chance. Australia. Finally first-choice full-back. Then the moment.

David Campese haring down his slipstream. Crowley knows that Michael Lynagh will chip into the space on Campese's wing.

But the muscle memory isn't available even though he knows what's coming next. Seconds later, Campese gathers, then delivers an audacious pop pass to Tim Horan to score the try that would effectively win the World Cup final.

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Crowley would never play for the All Blacks again. But he never let the moment define him; he just defined how the moment would shape him.

His coaching career has reflected this, whether curating future All Blacks or developing Canadian rugby; three years ago, when he pitched up in Treviso, "Little Venice", he faced his greatest challenge yet.

The team he inherited in 2016 had won just three league matches the previous season, their status synonymous with ridicule.

"It was a real eye-opener when I arrived," says the 57-year-old son of Taranaki.

"Our injury rate was about three times as high as Premiership clubs and we played four games less.

"That puts pressure on players who aren't ready to play. It was nobody's fault, it was just that there wasn't best practice operated and they had nobody who knew how to introduce it.

"We were very forward-oriented. There weren't sufficient skills to play the game in a manner required to build a winning culture.

"We needed to see a change in professionalism, work ethic and the style of play. And then to transfer that into results, by year three pushing up the table and maybe year four into a play-off."

They're a year ahead of schedule.


The arrival of Conor O'Shea in 2016 was also pivotal; although Cheetahs boss Franco Smith is rumoured to be replacing him as head coach of the Italians, the Dubliner's legacy remains embedded beneath the tip of the iceberg.

"There's certainly a lot of work being done on structures and behind the scenes," says Crowley in tribute to O'Shea and fellow Irishman Stephen Aboud.

"The U-18s won two games in the recent Six Nations. The U-20s have been performing really well.

"Conor has been doing a huge amount of work in terms of overcoming obstacles.

"You can't sit on your hands just because you think younger players are coming through. Because they are going to go into the semi-professional clubs so that pathway is not exact at the moment and that's where the work of Conor and Stephen is so crucial."

This season, year three of the project, has seen steady progress, and they have ensured qualification for the Champions Cup and today's historic PRO14 play-off.

"The coaches have self-developed too," explains Crowley of the Italian job overseen by himself and a trio of Irishmen (Michael Bradley's role in improving the competitiveness of Zebre is also deserving of credit).

"It's opened their eyes, the Italians have looked elsewhere and that didn't happen before. And combine that with a changing mindset amongst the players and all of it has combined to bring us to this point.

"Coaches too often focus on what players can't do rather than what they can do. Not too many players are the complete package in this world. So we want them to have a positive mindset and give them belief, while obviously learning from mistakes.

"It's a big positive to be happy knowing what you can do. It aids you rather than always feeling restricted by your perceived limitations.

"It doesn't happen overnight. It's completely different to Ireland. Irish teams win most of their games and that mentality is different. Whereas with Italy, when you're losing all the time, they're constantly getting ridiculed in the media and it has a psychological effect.

"So that's a challenge from a coaching point of view to instil the optimism into players. And once they have a few positive results, they get confidence. But then they lose at international level and you're back to square one in a sense.

"Players need to enjoy the game but they want to enjoy winning as well. The more times you win the more times you know how to win. Munster expect that to happen.

"You look at players like (Conor) Murray and (Joey) Carbery. They lose three or four games a year so they are constantly successful and that's a way of life.

"It's a different mindset to being possibly able to do it, before you start looking sideways at each other and then something else comes on top of you and, before you know it, there's another loss on the ledger."

Now the tide has turned. This is their time. Like that Dublin moment in 1991 for their coach, Treviso won't let it define them.

"We'll play to win," he insists. "We won't die wondering."

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