Friday 24 November 2017

O'Shea back on home turf as Quins bid to remove 'bloodgate' stain

David Kelly

David Kelly

Conor O'Shea is coming home this weekend. Home to Ireland, for whom he wore the green jersey with brimful pride on 35 occasions, when it was neither popular nor very profitable.

Home to Munster, wherein Conor's father Jerome was a multiple provincial champion for Kerry in the 1950s, twice proceeding to annex All-Ireland titles. Home to Limerick, where O'Shea would first blinkingly greet the world on October 21, 1970.

He has visited these shores already this season -- his side played Connacht in an earlier Amlin Challenge Cup pool game -- but Saturday's semi-final against Munster presents an altogether more revealing portrait of one of this country's most celebrated rugby exports.

But then this match is about more than the individual, as the man once bequeathed the flattering sobriquet 'Caesar' -- for his erstwhile curls rather than a knowing hint to his future leadership potential -- was keen to stress this week.

"This is all about Harlequins playing in a semi-final rather than about me," he said. "I always enjoy going home and I will look forward to taking the team there, as I would for any big occasion. We are all looking forward to it immensely."

O'Shea's consummate respect for the esteemed Munster tradition, to which he has regularly paid tribute in his punditry garbs, would never allow him to declare otherwise.

But there is more than mealy-mouthed fawning to his seemingly sterile deference.

Everything about O'Shea's current demeanour has been framed by the extraordinary circumstances in which he assumed the mantle of leadership at Harlequins. The London club were a revered name in world rugby reduced to terrible ignominy in the worst episode of deliberate cheating to afflict the professional era.

'Bloodgate' will forever be associated with them -- the fateful Heineken Cup semi-final afternoon two years ago will persist as an ineradicable stain on their reputation. Those tawdry attempts to deceive the sporting world against subsequent champions Leinster marked the end of former policeman Dean Richards' four-year coaching career at the Stoop, when he ordered winger Tom Williams to feign injury in the 6-5 defeat.

Williams chewed a fake blood capsule to fabricate a cut to the mouth, allowing substituted out-half and goal-kicker Nick Evans to return to the field with five minutes remaining in the match, for an ultimately mis-cued attempt to thieve his side a win.

Williams picked up a four-month suspension; Richards, the orchestrator of the cover-up, was banned for three years; the club was fined £259,000 as well as incurring much more in legal costs; the chicanery of Steph Brennan and Wendy Chapman, the physiotherapist and doctor centrally implicated, cost them their jobs.

"It has remained like a tattoo," remarked Evans, the former All Black who, like Williams, has remained at the club.

The club considered luminaries such Ian McGeechan, former Scotland coach Frank Hadden and South Africa assistant coach Gary Gold before plumping for O'Shea, fresh from stints with the English RFU and the English Institute of Sport.

Neptune's great sea could never erase the contaminated bloodstains that now pockmarked the club -- at least with O'Shea though, they possessed someone with the right combination of class and insouciant enthusiasm to aid the rehabilitation.

The club were rewarded for their foresight and O'Shea for his mutual leap of faith and they now stand on the brink of qualification for the Heineken Cup -- the scars of scandal still remain but the healing process has been a success.

"I knew a lot of the lads before I went in anyway and they're an energetic and enjoyable group to be around, who like to enjoy life and enjoy professional rugby," O'Shea said earlier this month.

"Hopefully over the next two or three years they're going to become stronger and stronger because the aim we have is to keep this group together. They're competitive now and they're gaining experience and with their natural maturation we believe we can go on to be one heck of a team. So that's the plan."

And what of his own plans? He declaims careerism but there has been a natural gradient to his administrative and coaching career; it is not beyond the realms of possibility to see him working for the IRFU as a high-performance director, if not a future head coach.

"I don't really plan too much to be fair," he said in the same interview. "I just try and do the best that I can and I've been very fortunate to have had the opportunity that I've had now because rugby is my passion. But I never really plan a career path."

However, as his current involvement with Harlequins illustrates, events often dictate circumstances.

Conor O'Shea may not be home for long this weekend. But you reckon he'll be back for good, sooner rather than later.

Irish Independent

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