Saturday 15 December 2018

Conor O'Shea: 'Leinster are Europe's best team for the last six seasons'

Rugby has come a long way since 1995, and so has Harlequins' Dublin-born supremo

Conor O'Shea has a lot of respect for what Leinster have achieved
Conor O'Shea has a lot of respect for what Leinster have achieved
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Even in old money, a fiver didn't get you very far in Italy's fashion capital. Conor O'Shea may have just made a small piece of history in Milan on November 1, 1995, but the Leinster branch weren't getting carried away with it.

On weeks like this, the former Ireland full-back allows a little looking back as he prepares to face the province he grew up playing for.

"It's funny, I've had a bit of a reminisce, as you do at times like these, and I scored their first try in European rugby, over in Milan on a dank, midweek day," he recalls.

"We all got given a fiver by the team manager to go out in Milan for our post-match meal, which even in 1995/96 didn't go a long way in Milan!

"I don't think you could afford a Margherita pizza even in those days. I don't remember much, it was a very foggy day and it wasn't the prettiest of spectacles, played in front of two men and a dog."


They were the so-called 'good old days' and Leinster would build on that 24-21 win to go on and reach the semi-final, where Cardiff blocked their path at Lansdowne Road.

"It was the birth of something embryonic at the time and you look at it now. . . you're playing in a pool game - not even knockout - and we could sell this out a couple of times I reckon," he says, switching back to the present day.

"It's going to be brilliant this weekend, I grew up playing for Terenure College, going to Lansdowne and I wanted to play for Leinster. I was lucky enough to do that."

Both the province and their former full-back have achieved much since that first season, a year when O'Shea travelled back from London Irish to line out for his local team.

On Sunday, he will plot Leinster's downfall from his perch in the Stoop stands, and the emotion will have long left his brain.

He has built Harlequins back up from their post-Bloodgate despair to become English champions and, perhaps more importantly, helped restore the London club's damaged reputation.

"We're not really thinking about it," he says of that fateful 2009 afternoon that brought scandal on the club and launched Leinster's era of European domination.

"Everyone has history and I like to think that this group of players have contributed a huge amount to English rugby over the past four seasons, and there is more to come.

"It's obviously something that we expected to come up in the media, we spoke to the players about the fact that they would be asked about it. But, for me, it's about what this group of players have done since.

"We're 150 years old in two years' time and there's good and bad in every club's history; that wasn't a good time but I'd like to think that this group of players have changed the image of the club in the way they've conducted themselves, the way they've played over the last couple of seasons and how they've contributed to English rugby in the national side.

"There's a lot of positives about what has happened since, just as there has been for Leinster since that day. The score was 6-5, I'm sure it will be pretty close again."

Despite the controversy that followed and the changes needed, the core group of players remained intact, to the extent that Quins have more survivors of 2009 than Leinster available to them this weekend.

The personnel may not have changed hugely, but the club needed a culture shift.

"That was an open goal, wasn't it? Given everything that went on," O'Shea says. "I've been very fortunate to have had Chris (Robshaw) as a captain initially. It's his 200th game for the club on Sunday, he won't be captain but he'll lead the team in so many different ways.

"I think there's a group of them that have driven it pretty hard. We're not the Waltons, we're not this big, happy family - you never are in sport - but we're a group who are incredibly motivated, we punch above our weight and we'll see if we can do that this weekend against an outstanding side who have set a benchmark."

As a director of rugby at a club whose resources don't match up to some of the heavier hitters in the English Premiership, O'Shea has a lot of respect for what Leinster have achieved on the European stage.

"I discount Toulon, not because of what they achieved - that takes a lot - but when you have that much money it's almost like playing fantasy rugby. I'm not doing them down, but Leinster are the team that have maximised everything, they've been the best team in Europe for the last six seasons unequivocally," O'Shea explains.

"Even when they have a bad season, they go and win the Pro12 last year.

"We know it's a huge test and we'll draw on some of the memories of the Munster quarter-final (in 2013) - we arrived out of the pool as No 1 seeds and Munster came and did a job.

"It's a sold-out Stoop. I've a fair feeling there could be a few Irish people in there and it will be a fair atmosphere. I just have a feeling that it will be a cracker. Our players are really looking forward to a big couple of weeks."

Those players are largely drawn from England, with Harlequins having more players in their squad from their home country than any other club in the competition, including the Irish provinces.

"It's a bit like Ireland, we do believe that if people in the local community can see players coming through who come from that community - it's so much harder in London than in Northampton, Leicester - to have that identity, we want kids to grow up and want to play for us because 'he's done it, he's come from my school, my club and played for Quins'.

"You have to get the balance right as well, you have to have your Nick Evans-type players and we'll look to bring in players who fit the right bill from outside, both English and foreign, that add to the group."

It has worked well so far, even if results this season are mixed.

O'Shea has a full squad to choose from this Sunday and, despite some poor league form, they sit atop Pool 2 going into this weekend. They'll pay Leinster their respects, but by no means is O'Shea daunted by the challenge.

"They're a top side, but we'll fire a few bullets ourselves and we've got some firepower," he concludes, with the emotion of looking back far from his mind.

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