Thursday 5 December 2019

'He's unbelievable' - Conor O'Shea backs Catt to get Ireland purring again

Conor O’Shea, the former Ireland international and ex-coach of both Italy and Harlequins. at the launch of the N-Pro headguard yesterday. Photo: INPHO
Conor O’Shea, the former Ireland international and ex-coach of both Italy and Harlequins. at the launch of the N-Pro headguard yesterday. Photo: INPHO
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ireland's World Cup may have ended in a whimper but Conor O'Shea firmly believes that the addition of Mike Catt to the coaching ticket can help the team bare its claws once more.

Joe Schmidt's charges were deemed guilty of refusing to adapt a once successful yet restrictive game plan in Japan as they tumbled from the tournament after inhibited defeats to Japan and then New Zealand.

However, O'Shea, who recently stepped down as Italian head coach following a tournament in which, under Catt's drilling, they scored more tries than ever before, says the timing could be right for his long-standing colleague to make a decisive impact.

"He can still do his skill set," says O'Shea of the English World Cup winner who he also recruited during his time as head coach with London Irish.


"He's unbelievable. So he can still do and show even if his hamstrings were never in great shape. If you want raw stuff, the Italian team scored more tries in the World Cup than any Italian team.

"You could say well it was only Canada or Namibia but the same teams have always been there and we played one game less. And historically for the last four-year period we have scored tries at a more consistent rate than the previous 10 years before, so all you need to see is that."

Catt is a disciple of the fabled Bath dynasty, once spear-headed by Brian Ashton, the man misguidedly installed by the IRFU in the early days of professionalism to teach amateurs a game plan that proved impossible to replicate.

O'Shea was one of those who struggled under Ashton who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fast forward a generation, though, and he insists Catt will have willing pupils.

"Listen, in terms of psychology profiles, he's a 'yellow' - he's an energy-giver, he's an entertainer," enthuses O'Shea. "Mike was pivotal to how Bath played. When Brian was here he tried to give us a skill set that we did not have.

"But now Mike is coming into a system that is full of skilful players and they have got the skill sets to be pushed.

"He will probably have very similar philosophies to how Brian played the game but I think we will have the armoury to be able to do it.

"We were just not ready for Brian. He was too early for Irish rugby but knew exactly what was needed.

"I'll be fascinated and I'm sure Catty, in terms of his coaching, has learned a lot as well because he was coaching in Italian, like all of us.

"He will have learned a lot in terms of his communication because you are more succinct when you don't have the language.

"You have to be very careful. You don't speak too much. I just know he's really, really excited about it all."

Ireland will not be alone in changing the way they play the game. Despite South Africa's return to traditional virtues, the over-whelming trend is towards graft, not craft.

The requirement for greater protection against concussion - O'Shea is here to promote a Galway-designed headguard which reduces impacts in a sport which has also lowered tackle heights - will evolve a novel style.

"The game is changing as well. I was sitting watching Japan play and it was a bit like 1995, everything was changing in front of us," he adds.

"Yes people will still target the (chest) but they are going to target it less and less because if you go anyway high you are gone and the game is gone. That allows people to free their arms, it allows people to play more, it allows people to off-load more, it allows people to line break more.

"So the game is changing so you can't look back on the last four years and say Ireland didn't change. The game was what the game was.

"But the game now is changing and you either admit it and say we have to do something different and evolve playing in a different way or else say I'm going to stick to my knitting!"

O'Shea will change too. After stepping away from Italy, as he didn't want to be a lame duck leader before his contract expired, he is line for a role with the English RFU as head of International Player Development.

Whatever his new gig, he will take a break from donning a tracksuit. Nine years on the training ground takes its toll.

"I've got some opportunities that are there, I'll try to firm them up and then just look forward to the next chapter. My wife and kids deserve that if I go to a match, I'm not there chewing over it for 10 days and have our mood dependent on every game. But I do want to continue trying to make sure I maintain that passion within the sport."

  • Conor O'Shea was speaking at the launch of the N-Pro headguard, founded in Galway, which reduces impact force to the head by up to 75 per cent versus traditional headguards and is now approved for global law trial by World Rugby.

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