Monday 23 April 2018

'I'm more passionate than when I took over 18 months ago'

Conor O'Shea's commitment to the cause has seen him put €1,700 of his own money into his Italian lessons. He believes his players, too, are learning fast

Italy coach Conor O’Shea believes the team are making progress Photo: Getty
Italy coach Conor O’Shea believes the team are making progress Photo: Getty

Mick Cleary

As he took the microphone in the giant hall of the headquarters of the Italian Olympic Committee (Coni), pressed into delivering an eloquent response in his adopted language to a gathering of dignitaries, Conor O'Shea had plenty of evidence around him to know that Rome most certainly was not built in a day.

The soaring colonnades of the Coni building and the overt muscular iconography of the Foro Italico leading to the Stadio Olimpico was a project shaped over many years.

Conor O’Shea speaks with Danny Care after Italy’s controversial clash against England in Twickenham last year
Conor O’Shea speaks with Danny Care after Italy’s controversial clash against England in Twickenham last year

O'Shea is on a similar mission. The former Ireland full-back and Harlequins director of rugby has been head coach of Italy for 18 months.

It might be a stretch to say that the state of Italian rugby was in keeping with the ruins that are spread around the Eternal City but there was little doubt that it was teetering.

Prior to the 2017 Six Nations several players came to him to tell him that they had not been paid. One of the two rugby franchises, Benetton and Zebre, was in danger of being ejected from the Pro14. And the national team was yet again destined for the wooden spoon for the 12th time in its 17 years in the championship.

Yet later that evening at Italy's training base in the multi-sport Centre Sportivo Guilio Onesti complex, O'Shea, in the company of Francesco Ascione, the federation's director of rugby and the man who hired the Irishman for this salvage project, gave persuasive evidence that things are on an upward turn.

Positivity

There is certainly an air of positivity in camp as they prepare to take on England on Sunday.

Earlier, the players had gathered in a small lecture room, packed-in and attentive, as the front-man for an Insights programme of personality-evaluation began a two hour task-centred seminar.

It is the sort of sports science exercise that is the norm in the UK for elite teams. Italy are finally getting in on the act. It is a small piece of the jigsaw.

"Italy didn't move with the times and we have had to catch up," said O'Shea.

"We have made changes. And if we hadn't, we would have been left even further behind. Every country has gone through this - England with its power-struggle with the clubs, Wales, too, also Scotland - and now it is our turn.

"It can't all be done overnight. But it will be done. I'm determined to prepare Italy for a lasting future. And, yes, I know, I know, I'll be judged on results, on what happens against England and others. That's sport. That's the currency people trade in. And that's right and proper. But there is not a simple and straightforward pathway to success. But we will get there. "

There are glaring discrepancies between the teams that will line up on Sunday afternoon at the Stadio Olimpico. The Italian players will be on a match fee of £3,000 (€3,400) England's £22,000 (€25,000).

The entire budget to run Italian rugby is £44 million (€50m) while England's professional rugby investment alone is £63.7m (€72m). Italy struggles to afford week-long training camps. There is no volunteer mentality in Italian sport. Everyone has to be paid.

Annually £350,000 (€398,000) is spent just on providing referees for the U-14 game. In schools, only two hours are allocated to sport each week on the timetable.

"And that is for exercise, not team games," said Ascione, a PE teacher himself and former hooker from Naples.

"The big countries have a turbo engine while we need to find the accelerator. But we can't hide behind this. This is our reality. We have to work within our culture as it is."

Ascione starts to move three empty bottles around the cafeteria table.

"Our boys have a soccer mentality so they can see if an opponent coming at them, they know to look for space but in rugby their instinct is simply so go forward (into the contact)," said Ascione.

"Our challenge is to get that awareness, that culture, in our young players."

Participation in Italy is not a problem. Registered players have increased from 25,000 in 2000, the year Italy was admitted to the Six Nations, to 110,282. But the nurturing and identification of talent is an issue.

"Take Bath No 8 Zach Mercer and our 20-year-old flanker, Giovanni Licata (who will start against England)," said O'Shea.

"Zach will have had a thorough grounding through schools, clubs and family from a young age, playing all sorts of sport. Giovanni is a part-time policeman. That doesn't make one system right or wrong. But it does mean that we have to find these players ourselves and put the rugby education into them. These are not problems for us, they are challenges. "

O'Shea has monthly meetings with the two franchises - "so we can all work together and not in silos, making it all more joined-up" - a development that has persuaded the Celts to agree to long-term investment in them for five years in the PRO14.

"Our national coach is a figurehead in all this," said Ascione, who wants O'Shea to extend his contract beyond 2020. "For the first time before Conor's appointment we actually made a profile of what we wanted. "

So much for the backdrop. O'Shea does not want any sympathy for Italy's difficulties. And he is fully aware that the clamour for Italy's putative relegation from the Six Nations would grow in volume were there to be another championship whitewash with hefty losses.

"Rugby needs expansion not constriction," said O'Shea. "I want a great Italy. I want a great Georgia. A great Samoa. Rugby World Cups have to be competitive. Countries need support. "

Yet O'Shea knows that Sunday night in the Stadio Olimpico will be testing if, as has always happened, England win.

"In the aftermath, I'll be emotional, drained and difficult," acknowledged O'Shea. "We all have to be unbelievably resilient in Italian rugby. It would be so easy not to put your head above the parapet. But everyone does. Is Sergio (Parisse) not deflated after a defeat? Of course, he is. But he dusts himself down and gets on with it. Look, I would be depressed about the whole situation if I didn't see change. But I do. I'm as passionate, in fact, more passionate than when I took over 18 months ago."

O'Shea lives in Sirmione on Lake Garda with his wife and two daughters, a beautiful spot in its own right but chosen as it is halfway between the two franchises in Treviso and Parma.

The Irishman does not go at things half-heartedly. He had Italian lessons before he arrived, a practice he continues and has even paid €1,700 from his own pocket for week-long intensive Italian courses taken in Florence where part of the methodology is to cross-examine him as if he were in a hostile press conference.

There is no sense of despondency in and around the camp, only shared resolve. Former Leicester and Italy prop, shaggy-haired Martin Castrogiovanni, drops by with a sausage-dog puppy in tow, still a Pied Piper figure as Parisse and pals gather for a coffee and chat. They all know that bonding and pride in the jersey will take them only so far.

But things are beginning to happen, be it the Pro14 commitment or the fact that All Black coaching guru Wayne Smith will have a short-term consultancy role. Earlier in the day, Parisse had taken time to meet-and-greet all the Italian Federation staff and pose for selfies.

The entire squad was present to hear an address from the 'Seb Coe of Italian sport', Coni president, Giovanni Malago, extolling the impact of rugby and the Six Nations in Rome. Giant posters of Azzurri players adorn buildings in the city while 'La Gazzetta dello Sport' reported Malago's presence at a rugby event with a bracing headline: "Italia, e il momento di rischiare" ("Italy, now is the time to take risks").

Certainly there will be no repeat of the no-ruck strategy, dubbed 'The Fox,' that flummoxed England last year.

"There was a major over-reaction to that, to the extent that they amended the law which is ridiculous as it has led to more contacts at the breakdown," said O'Shea.

"What I can promise you is young, vibrant Italian players such as Licata, (full-back/wing) Matteo Minozzi and (back-row forward) Renato Giammarioli will be giving it their all. England are coming here to blow us off the park, to play at an intensity that they believe we can't live with. We'll be ready."

For that, and for many other challenges. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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