Friday 24 May 2019

How Clive Woodward meeting changed Conor O'Shea's life

Sliding doors moment in Dublin ensured Italy coach wasn't lost to the game he loves

Italy head coach Conor O'Shea. Photo: Sportsfile
Italy head coach Conor O'Shea. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

When Clive Woodward and Conor O'Shea walked into a Dublin hotel in the summer of 1995, they passed, appropriately, through sliding doors.

For this was a meeting that would change O'Shea's life.

"I was going to quit for good," admits O'Shea, who had just played his 13th - and he felt last - international for Ireland in the World Cup defeat to France.

"I was pretty disillusioned with rugby, the way we played, the whole structure of Irish rugby. It just wasn't fun, which it was supposed to be. You never felt you were being given the sort of support you needed.

"Yeah, you could say it was a massive crossroads."

England's 2003 World Cup-winning coach Woodward, then shepherding a collection of Irish exiles at London Irish, takes up the tale.

"The game was in a very strange place and nobody knew what was happening. It was the wild west. I wanted Irish players and there was an appetite for players to come over.

"Even then Conor was a deep thinker for such a young guy. I told him I wanted him to play for Ireland, otherwise I didn't want him.

"He'd lots of ideas but rugby wasn't top of his list. He'd so many strings to his bow. I told him his playing career was so short. Your time is finished before you know it and you always have regrets when it ends."

Woodward suggested he take up a business course in Brunel and in the meantime set him up at a house in London, arranged by Woodward's wife and business partner, whose daughter, Alex, was smitten by the then 25-year-old full-back.

"It's funny how Clive changed things. Bringing over so many Irish guys kicked the IRFU into saying we have to change and that's how the Irish rugby system we see today was born. And he introduced me to my future wife too. So that has to be good!"

"He definitely batted above his average there," smiles Woodward. O'Shea (right) would play another five years for his country, winning the last of 32 caps against England in Ireland's first Six Nations game before a knee injury ended his playing career.

But his studies had prepared him for work after play; London Irish first, then the RFU Academy and English Institute for Sport as O'Shea earned a reputation for possessing acute managerial skills in a variety of disciplines.

Rugby was in his blood though and Harlequins CEO Mark Evans pinpointed him as someone who could transform his side from top to bottom in the wake of the grievous 'Bloodgate' affair, when they had been guilty of cheating in an infamous 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster.

"We had a very strong field but he just suited better than anyone else," says Evans. "His qualities were the best matched for our club at that particular point of time. A cultural fit.

"He had a broad understanding of a rugby organisation other than just on the playing side. There aren't many people who can head up your football department but also understand the financial and marketing areas, and link them all. He's a good media presence too."

Instead of spending the summer of 2012 at the London Olympics, O'Shea rejoiced in the success of being the coach of the English champions.

"I wanted to go to the Olympics but Mark hijacked me in a hotel in London. This is your last chance, he told me. I loved my time there."

"He is relentlessly optimistic," adds Evans. "That's just him. Of course he gets angry and frustrated and irritated but behind the scenes, not publicly and not very often with the players. He has this very positive attitude.

"We'd known each other a good while and the only time he was pissed off was when I told him I was leaving Harlequins.

"'You bloody get me here and within 15 months we're leaving.' I just told him, 'I think we're doing fine now, Conor.'"

They did more than fine, winning a league title and European Challenge Cup. When Italy approached O'Shea in 2016, they were at the same crossroads Irish rugby had reached in 1995.

Rudderless, they needed direction. With familiar Irish voices like Stephen Aboud and Michael Bradley around him, he has drilled deep to re-shape the foundations.

"This is a massive challenge, it's enormous. We know it's about getting the systems right. I'm not bothered about people looking at my stats and results," O'Shea says.

"I want to leave this job having left it in a better place. It's a wonderful country and we need rugby to be strong."

Woodward eyes O'Shea's progress from afar and, though impressed by his friend's enthusiasm, a frustration tugs at his sleeve.

The pair used to live close to each other so what he says isn't a shock.

"He knows what I'm going to say. Since the game has gone professional, you have to be a coach. You can't be distracted.

"Joe Schmidt is a coach, Eddie Jones, Pep Guardiola. We get mixed up between coaching and management.

"You have to be in a tracksuit. On the pitch. You're not there to develop. Your role is to create a successful team and superstars and that will develop the game.

"The moment you become distracted you will become second and that's what I say to Conor. If you do both, you may fall into a big hole. You have to be focused. Italy have the manpower, with a good coach, to be successful. You have to do one thing or another. It's not ten years ago."

O'Shea says he will never work in Ireland; perhaps this is why.

"Conor is like me. I've never planned my career. Opportunities happen. I'd just tell him to be one thing or another.

"There's no way Ireland would replace Joe Schmidt with anyone who is not an outstanding coach. Conor would have to have done something outstanding to be an Irish coach, maybe a director of rugby would be his best role.

"But we won't know what he's best at because he's trying to do both. One day he will have to look in the mirror. You can't keep losing while you're saying you're developing. I would definitely employ him but he can't do two jobs. And he knows that."

Irish Independent

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