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O'Shea happy to axe fox and bring in Azzurri cubs


 Italian head coach Conor O’Shea. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images

Italian head coach Conor O’Shea. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images

Italian head coach Conor O’Shea. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images

Law changes mean Italy cannot start the Six Nations next Sunday by confronting England with more of the no-ruck tactics that characterised their meeting last year, but head coach Conor O'Shea's trademark enthusiasm is in no danger of dimming.

"We went out for dinner last night - and this is not a lie - a fox ran out in front of us. I thought Eddie had released it as a joke," he said.

That day at Twickenham, Eddie Jones's team were confounded by the visitors' innovative strategy - devised by Italy defence coach Brendan Venter - of leaving the breakdown alone and sending players beyond a non-existent offside line.

The action, termed 'the fox', disrupted England significantly before they rallied to win 35-16. Now one man from the attacking side can form a ruck, and, therefore, an offside line, there is no way to replicate it. Even so, O'Shea believes there is enough attacking ability to trouble the reigning Six Nations champions in a more conventional way.

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"We know the challenge that lies ahead of us," he explained. "It's massive: England at home and then Ireland away six days later, France away, Wales away and then Scotland.

"It's tough, but we think we're in a miles better place than we were 12 months ago. I know we're in a better place. I think we have a better foundation than people understand in our game. I think we will make controlled decisions and take controlled risks. That may mean we will lose a bit of set-piece [strength], but we will go for it and we won't die wondering as opposed to being secure.

"Our changes won't be 'foxes', they will be taking some risks and hopefully unleashing some of the youthful X-factor that we think we have. I'm energised because I know we're making progress. If I didn't, I'd be walking out the door."

Despite long-term injuries to a trio of potent back-line strike-runners - Michele Campagnaro, Angelo Esposito and Leonardo Sarto - O'Shea is buoyed by the progress of Italy's professional franchises. Zebre and Benetton have combined for nine wins in 26 Guinness Pro14 matches since September and the latter made life difficult for Scarlets, Toulon and Bath during the Champions Cup pool stages. Whereas Zebre seemed on the verge of extinction a year ago, the Pro14 future of both franchises now appears assured.

There is also the prospect of former New Zealand coach Wayne Smith coming on board before the June tour to Japan. "It's annoying," O'Shea continued. "His Italian is miles better than any of ours, so that'll be embarrassing when he comes in and starts addressing everyone perfectly. It will challenge us as coaches as well as developing the players. He has a massive passion for developing Italian rugby.

"I joked about it before we played the All Blacks [in November] over dinner and then I sent him a text when he retired asking if he wanted to come in. He replied saying he would. His nickname is 'The Professor', isn't it? He's already onto our analyst, cutting our games."

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As for on-field resources, O'Shea name-checked back-three youngsters, Matteo Minozzi and Mattia Bellini and said back-row depth was "frightening" while captain Sergio Parisse will play his 130th Test at the Stadio Olimpico.

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