Defiant Conor O'Shea at 'the beginning of a revival'
Irish coach took radical steps to return Azzurri to their roots and give England almighty fright
Conor O'Shea is a self-professed rugby man and his CV both as a player and a manager backs that up. Like many who operate at his level, he feels a responsibility to play the game a certain way. For him, Italy's tactics against England at Twickenham under his stewardship fulfilled that responsibility.
Everything they did was within the rules; they disrupted England and played some good rugby to boot. O'Shea knew that his Italian team had to come out and do something different if they wanted to compete with England. In the previous round of the Six Nations they had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ireland and the hurt reverberated around the squad.
Before the England game, the build-up was very much focused on the number of points that Eddie Jones's men could put on the board. It was going to be David against Goliath and the only way the underdog stood a chance of claiming victory was if they went back to the drawing board.
The head coach knew that he couldn't send his players out to be slaughtered by a confident England side who were on a match-winning run of 16 games. He needed them to be inventive; he wanted to shock England, to force them to ask questions of themselves, and for his side to be a difficult team to play against. The Italians had a job to do and they followed the instructions to the letter. They led at half-time and with ten minutes to go England were ahead by just two points; it was all to play for.
"That performance was the beginning of a revival. The way we went about the game the last day was us saying we've had enough of people having a pop at Italian rugby. I want to see Italian rugby fight back and say we want to do it our way," explained O'Shea.
Although Sunday's game-plan surprised a lot of people it was something that O'Shea had pondered for quite a while. He's been in Italy for just over six months and since the beginning he's strived to understand the Italian culture and develop a style of play that reflects what the Italians are about. He is aware that there is no point trying to imitate other countries when there is so much history, tradition and passion associated with the game in his new home.
"The great Italian side of the nineties was a horrible side to play against," says O'Shea. "It was physical, it was in your face, but it had skill too. Players like (Diego) Dominguez, (Paolo) Vaccari, (Cristian) Stoica, people like that who had magic. We have to be horrible to play against and then we can evolve, there are some good players coming through that will help add the magic. By the 2019 World Cup I want us to be the team that no one wants in their pool."
So with a style in mind O'Shea went to his captain Sergio Parisse to tell him what was coming down the track. Luckily for the new manger his side embraced his ideas and worked hard at the execution.
"There's a particular skill in what we did, to not engage, to roll when you tackle, to get back off the floor, to not allow any contact. That doesn't happen by saying 'can you please do that'. It was practiced and trained. Can we do it again? I'm sure we can. Will we do it the same extent? I doubt it. It's a skill we have in our locker and, more importantly, we know how to play against it. So hopefully we are a step ahead of anyone who tries to play it against us."
In the days running up to the game O'Shea joked with one of his coaches, Mike Catt, about the inevitable comparisons that were going to come from home. He expected his side to be likened to the Gaelic football teams who took on a dominant Kerry in the 1990s. Similarities between him and Donegal's Jim McGuinness, who introduced the blanket defence, have also been pointed out. One thing both men share is a will to win and while victory might not come easy for Italy right now O'Shea wants to bring his side to a place were they can regularly get over the line. For him it's more than just his job, as man who was reared on rugby he'd hate to see the Italians fade away.
"I'm a rugby person first and foremost and I love sport. I would like to see a strong and dominant Italian team. If someone is in trouble, don't beat them, support them, especially when we don't have that many rugby nations in the world. To allow one as great as Italy, in terms of its tradition, disappear would be awful. I'm very passionate about it; I can't get my head around why people would want to see a team die in front of us."
O'Shea knows he will be judged on the short term but that hasn't stopped him working on the long term. He's been looking at ways to make Italian rugby competitive across the board and is determined to help bring about the necessary changes that will benefit the country in the future.
At the end of the Six Nations there will be a meeting with World Rugby, the referees and the head coaches, and during proceedings the rules will be looked it. O'Shea expects that his game-plan will come under the spotlight but feels a need to be cautious when it comes to altering the rules. He'd be happy if the existing rules were officiated properly and consistently for both sides.
"You have to be careful because changes can have a knock-on effect on other areas of the game. I'm talking breakdown, maul and tackle area. You have to think of that the whole way through the pitch and the whole way through every aspect of rugby as it is."
After the game O'Shea met up with Eddie Jones. The England head coach congratulated him on giving the game a good crack. Italy may not have earned the win but in ways O'Shea's side did more than that. They are back on the rugby map and have proved they are a side worth fighting for.
Sunday Indo Sport