Wednesday 21 February 2018

Munster role would have been perfect for Conor O'Shea

Conor O’Shea will be in demand when he finishes with Harlequins at the end of the season. Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
Conor O’Shea will be in demand when he finishes with Harlequins at the end of the season. Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

The career of Conor O'Shea has never been about straight lines.

Even those who would recall his body-swerving runs from defence in his 1990s playing career as a winner of 35 Ireland caps would recognise that, although he always knew where he was going, he didn't always have to necessarily take the direct route.

Since leaving Ireland in the '90s, the permanent call to home has rarely been absent from his life, either in talk that he might succeed Declan Kidney (for either Munster or then Ireland), return to Leinster following Joe Schmidt's departure or, indeed, more fittingly given his recent experience as an all-compassing director of rugby, for the role now filled by Australian David Nucifora at the IRFU.

Not only that, he has been regularly discussed in despatches when the England job has become vacated, most recently in the aftermath of the dismissal of Stuart Lancaster - ironically, he had been on the committee that had head-hunted him.

His candidacy for all these roles, even though he has rarely been top of the bookies' sheets, has always been as respectfully analysed as has been his polite disengagement.

As a player, he turned down several lucrative contract offers; money has never been an issue for this self-motivated individual who, in his 20s, would rise at 6am for gym training before doing his day job in AIB.

When he didn't have evening training, he would take evening classes in French.

He would often be frustrated by those more gifted than he who didn't put in the effort he did to maximise his gifts; hence, his tolerance for bull is rather limited.

His apprenticeship was studied in the extreme.

When injury had curtailed his playing career at the beginning of the millennium, he put the Commerce degree and two Masters he completed to good use, earning a reputation as one of the finest sporting administrators in England.

First, with London Irish, and then with the RFU as Director of their Regional Academies before landing a coveted and much-respected tenure at the English Institute of Sport, effectively a key insider in the Olympic programme (he would later be invited to review the under-performing British swimmers at the 2012 Games.)

Already earning a formidable status as one who could radically institute an identity and deliver upon closely conceived mission statements, his loss to rugby, let alone his absence from Irish rugby, was always keenly felt.


His next gig would allow him to inculcate his philosophy where it was needed most, at the famous London club, Harlequins, whose reputation had been badly tarnished by 'Bloodgate', the events which had tainted their European Cup semi-final defeat to his old side Leinster, in 2009.

His tolerance to remain beyond his usefulness is obviously another personal trait; his success at Harlequins has been immense, exorcising so many demons and delivering immediate success: a Premiership title in his second season, before establishing the side as one of England's, albeit regretfully, not Europe's elite.

It was only 44 days ago that he stressed his commitment to prolong his six-year stint at Harlequins, despite rumoured interest from an Italian federation still struggling, despite occasional upsets, to cope with their ascent into the Home Unions closed shop in 2000.

"I don't know what the next move is - I'll see," he said after making a decision that seemingly shocked staff. "There'll be plenty of opportunities. I'll make that decision as and when, and it may be made for me in many ways. Whether it's Italy or not will be for them to consider, not for me."

Which, given he has already had discussions to succeed Jacques Brunel, who had been slated to go post-World Cup, is what you might call leading the door open.

It would be the perfect shop window for the next phase of his career with, one presumes, the role of Ireland head coach arriving.

And yet there is another post which could have been perfect, one that would have taken him back to the land of his double All-Ireland winning father, Jerome.

Munster could have done with someone who can be a coaching czar and a tracksuit trainer, wizard PR man and supreme director of operations. O'Shea could have fulfilled these roles alongside his erstwhile team-mate Anthony Foley.

One senses they may have missed a trick. In the future, the IRFU, particularly if Schmidt gets the Lions gig in 2017, will be careful not to.

For Conor O'Shea is a man who always knows where he is going. And he usually gets there.

Irish Independent

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