Wednesday 21 March 2018

'I love my country too much to do it' - Conor O'Shea tells Paul Kimmage why he never wants to coach Ireland

Italian boss Conor O'Shea remains a man of values and explains why he never wants the Ireland top job

Conor O’Shea says he has no interest in ever coaching Ireland.
Photo: James Crombie
Conor O’Shea says he has no interest in ever coaching Ireland. Photo: James Crombie
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

What happened to all of our great rugby folk? They used to be the bravest, toughest and brightest people in sport but they're as bad as footballers now when it comes to playing dumb or diving for cover. I've almost given up trying to interview them. They're fine when you're tickling their tummies or plugging their hair gel or moisturisers, but confront them with a simple truth and they start squealing. Then their handlers jump in:

"No comment."

"That's it."

"Time's up."

"No more questions."

It's been a tough month trying to get any of them on the record about the Munster debacle or the state of the game:

"I want to, but . . . "

"I'd love to, but . . . "

"Talk to me soon."

"Talk to my agent."

O’Shea: ‘I want this Italian team to be the best this country has ever produced.'
O’Shea: ‘I want this Italian team to be the best this country has ever produced.'

"You'll be hearing from my lawyer."

Thank God for Conor O'Shea.

My editor had to pick himself off the floor when informed that he'd agreed to meet me in Rome, and almost everything about our conversation seemed surreal.

"Come to training?"


"We'll go for a meal."


"Let me introduce you to Sergio (Parisse)"


We spent about six hours together at Giulio Onesti Olympic Centre on Monday and there were times when it felt we were shooting that popular beer ad: "Carlsberg don't do interviewing head coaches in the week of the Six Nations, but if they did . . . "

There were no idiot press officers poking him in the ribs; everything was on the table, no question was out of bounds, and by the end my gob had been completely smacked. O'Shea was great company: intelligent, honest, witty and warm. "We come to bury Caesar," I announced, putting the microphone down.

"Bring it on," he smiled.

1999: Conor O'Shea, Ireland. Five Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Wales, Wembley Stadium, London, England. Photo: Sportsfile
1999: Conor O'Shea, Ireland. Five Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Wales, Wembley Stadium, London, England. Photo: Sportsfile

1 Superstars

Everybody who experienced the silence will never forget it. It really got to me. And then we drew a line under it. My feeling was that the English players should be treated with total respect until the first whistle blew and then we should flake the life out of them. Conor O'Shea, the former Ireland international, had been asked to talk to the English players about the history of Croke Park and its significance in Irish life. Whatever they learned that week couldn't make them understand. As far as I was concerned they would never know what it meant to us.

Donncha O'Callaghan

'Joking Apart'

Paul Kimmage: I've been trawling through the various references to you in my raft of rugby books at home and you're everywhere: Brendan Fanning's From There to Here; Tom English's No Borders; Clive Woodward's Winning; Johnny Sexton's Becoming a Lion; Paul O'Connell's autobiography, Donncha O'Callaghan's autobiography, Rob Andrew's autobiography, Mike Catt's autobiography, Geordan Murphy's autobiography, George Hook's autobiography . . .

Conor O'Shea: (Laughs)

PK: I want to start with that passage from Donncha O'Callaghan's book about the England game in 2007 and the singing of the anthems at Croke Park. Here's the bit that interests me: you were 37 years old that day and working in England as the director of regional academies at the RFU?'

COS: Yeah.

PK: Who approached you about talking to the players?

COS: Brian Ashton. I had taken over from him at the national academy (in 2005) when he took the England job, and I had played under him obviously when he coached Ireland (in 1996). He knew about my links to Gaelic football and about my father.

PK: He did?

COS: Yeah, because we had worked together. He's a teacher by trade and he wanted me to give the young England guys a sense of where they were playing so no one was offended. You know what young fellas are like. A throwaway comment like, 'It's only a pitch' could have been grabbed by the media and blown into anything. So he just wanted them to understand.

PK: How far in advance of the game did you meet them?

COS: The week of.

PK: Where?

COS: Pennyhill Park (the team hotel). I rang my dad about it: "What will I say?" and gave them a page from a book - The Same Age as the State by Máire Cruise O'Brien - to take away and read, and just spoke to them generally about what happened there and the significance of the opening of the gates to rugby football. I remember Andy Farrell coming up to me afterwards wanting to know more, so you could see the guys who had that little bit of interest over and above the norm. Because there was a lot of talk about him as a rugby league player who was playing for England, and I remember thinking at the time: 'I like you.'

PK: Anyone else?

COS: Martin Corry springs to mind, but even at that it wasn't easy. You know the way you have armed police at airports? Well, when they were flying out, someone tried to get one of the players to pose with a gun! You could (imagine) the media managers: "What the hell is going on here!"

PK: Christ!

COS: Yeah.

PK: You were at the game?

COS: I was working for RTÉ that day. Two things stood out: as I was walking into Croke Park there was a bloke outside with a Celtic jersey holding a placard saying we should not be allowed inside the stadium. I looked at him and thought: 'Seriously! And you're wearing a bloody soccer jersey!'

PK: Yeah, a bit rich.

O’Shea: ‘I wanted to test myself at this (international) level, and do something different as well’. Photo: Sportsfile
O’Shea: ‘I wanted to test myself at this (international) level, and do something different as well’. Photo: Sportsfile

COS: The second thing, obviously, was the anthems. When I was doing TV, I always stood outside for the anthems, just to feel the atmosphere. God Save the Queen played and there wasn't a sound - just the team almost and the pocket of English fans. And then Amhrán na BhFiann was sung like you've never heard it in your life . . . Were you there that day?

PK: No.

COS: I've never, ever felt anything like it. It was like the South Africa/New Zealand World Cup final in '95 - one of those real seminal days. The BBC studio was beside us. Jerry Guscott was standing outside and I remember he turned to me straight after the anthem: "We are fucked!"

PK: (Laughs)

COS: They could have put up anyone . . . the All Blacks . . . England's World Cup winning team . . . No one was beating Ireland that day, you could just feel it. I think it was one of my proudest moments to be Irish.

PK: What did your father say?

COS: He was incredibly proud.

PK: You said you asked his advice?

COS: Well, how deep do you want to go? I mean, you could write a book on this. Girvan Dempsey scored the first try on the right side of the pitch as we looked down, and someone sent an email into RTÉ saying: 'That's where Mick Hogan was gunned down - in that corner.' I thought, 'It can't be.' And I wasn't going to go live and say it until we had checked it out.

My dad always said that in the '50s and '40s and '30s you played in your position: the full-back played full-back, and the right corner-back played right corner-back - you didn't move. Hogan was a right corner-back; he couldn't have been in that left corner where Girvan scored . . .

(He pauses for effect.)

. . . But he was running away from the guns.

PK: Interesting.

COS: Look it up, it's amazing. So Donncha is right, that was a great day.

PK: Tell me about your parents. Your father, Jerome, was a great footballer with . . . what was it? Three All-Irelands for Kerry?

COS: He won three and was beaten twice.

PK: What's your mother's name?

COS: Margaret.

PK: How are they doing?

COS: They are both doing well. Dad is 88 and Mum turns 80 the week of the Ireland game, so I'm going to stay around for a couple of days afterwards.

PK: How did they meet?

COS: Jaysus! Both were teachers at the time and met at the tail end of my father's football career: Mum is from Thurles . . . well, Urlingford, and Dad is from Cahersiveen. We're very lucky - myself and my brothers - to have them both in good health.

PK: You're the youngest of three boys?

COS: Yeah, the black sheep.

PK: Why?

COS: I didn't do medicine. My eldest brother, Diarmuid, is a geriatrician and Donal is in endocrinology.

PK: Yeah, we all know Donal. I think of him every time I'm being naughty with food.

COS: (Laughs) You cannot mention this!

(He is grazing on a bun and a bottle of water.)

PK: Too late! It's been noted.

COS: I used to be dreadful watching games; I'd be chewing sweets or drinking Lucozade Sport so you can imagine what he was like: "Conor! Stop it!" So now I have to drink water all the time.

PK: You were born in Limerick but raised in Dublin?

COS: Yeah. I was in Limerick for a year . . . a year-and-a-half . . . I think Dad was in the ICMSA at that stage before going into the civil service.

PK: Did you have a sense of him 'being someone' when you were growing up?

COS: Ah yeah, especially when we were in Kerry. I've been going to Kenmare every year since I was born. It's my favourite place in the world. My uncle ran a hotel there, and Dad bought a bungalow and we'd spend the summers swimming off the pier. I grew up with the great Kerry team of the '70s. I was in awe of them: 'Jacko' (O'Shea) and Pat (Spillane) and Mikey Sheehy and Bomber Liston and John Egan and Ger Power and Seanie Walsh and Ger O'Keeffe and John O'Keeffe and Charlie Nelligan. But people would come up to you: 'Jesus! Your dad was incredible!'

PK: That's nice.

COS: Yeah. He used always say: "If you make a mistake, make it positively - never show people, because 99 per cent of them won't know." But I remember watching this grainy footage of him in the '50s, and you see him slicing the ball into touch and giving himself a slap. So we reminded him: "Hold on a second, Dad. What was that about making a mistake?"

PK: (Laughs)

COS: I have some great memories. He used to play this competition with us - Superstars. Ten events: push-ups, sit-ups, pool, table tennis, bowls, putting and a bit of volleyball in the back garden, for a trophy which is still at home. And we played every year until dad nearly got beaten, and then we stopped - never played it again. My eldest brother got close to him and that was it, done.

PK: So it was competitive?

COS: Yeah, you wanted to win all the time. I remember storming off a golf course once because my brothers had got to me. There's very few people can wind me up but my brothers know all the buttons.

PK: It's funny, I've never thought of you as a Kerryman?

COS: Well, I'm not, I'm a wannabe. Probably my worst sporting moment outside of the Lens dressing room (the World Cup defeat to Argentina in '99) was the deflation of Seamus Darby's goal (the five-in-a-row final in 1982). I was 12 at the time.

PK: Were you there?

COS: The Canal End. When I was younger, Dad would lift me over the turnstiles and I'd sit on his knee and we'd have our packet of Scots Clan - don't tell my brother - it was brilliant. But that Kerry team gave me a massive love of sports. If I hadn't played rugby for Ireland I'd have wanted to play football for Kerry, but I'd never have been good enough.

2 Into the Bear Pit

It was my second cap and I loved it. I loved the atmosphere at the Parc des Princes. As a kid it was the place that fascinated me most. They ran away with it in the end but the whole occasion was why I wanted to play rugby.

Tom English

'No Borders'

PK: You played your first game for Ireland against Romania at Lansdowne Road on November 13, 1993.

COS: Yeah, I should have played in the Five Nations that year but I put my ankle out playing for Lansdowne against Blackrock in the AIL (All Ireland League) a week or two before the Scotland game. I hobbled off and iced it all night and decided by hook or by crook I was going to present myself (to the team) and tell everyone there was nothing wrong with me. And Diarmuid, my doctor brother, agreed! (laughs) I was driven over and tried to put my foot down and Noel Murphy just looked at me and said: 'Hospital.' I had surgery on it and two screws put in and thought my chance was gone. But I was fit to go on the development tour to Zimbabwe and South Africa and played well enough to get into that match against Romania.

PK: How did it feel to be an international rugby player?

COS: Amazing. I remember standing opposite my mum and dad and looking over at them as the anthem was being sung. It wasn't glamorous, or a game to remember, but it was the best moment I've had, because I never thought I'd get there.

PK: You didn't?

COS: I had never played representative in school. I'd left a year early and gone to Lansdowne where Philip Danaher and Fergus Dunlea were the full-backs. I was doing commerce in UCD and doing this loop the whole time on a bike from home to Belfield to Lansdowne to home. Then Danaher left to go back to Garryowen and Fergus, who was the Irish full-back, got absolutely decapitated by (Va'aiga) Tuigamala playing for Leinster against the All Blacks, and suddenly I'm in the team. That was my sliding doors moment.

PK: So it was a big deal to play for Ireland?

COS: It was brilliant because, as I've said, I never thought I'd get there - and that's not true for everyone. The first time I saw Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy I knew they were special; and I remember seeing Owen Farrell when he was 15 and just going: 'Wow! Wow!'

PK: What had you got?

COS: Perseverance.

PK (laughs): Come on!

COS: Yeah, perseverance and a bit of luck. I was an average player who worked incredibly hard - a piano pusher not a piano player. I could catch and kick and run and might have done more in a different environment but our style in the '90s was terrible. People used to say: "Why are you playing like that for your club but not for Ireland?" And I'd say: "Well, I'm not touching the ball."

PK: Your second cap was in the '94 Five Nations against France at Parc des Princes.

COS: Yeah, I loved it. I wish they were still playing there.

PK: Parc des Princes?

COS: Yeah.

PK: Why?

COS: It was just a bear pit. You'd look at them as they were coming out the other side and were reminded of what you play for. Are you going to retreat into your shell and wither away to nothing? Or will you block everything out and imagine you're kicking a ball to your brothers in a game of gaining ground? Romania was brilliant because of what it was, but it was 17,000 people in a 47,000-seat stadium and you don't test yourself, you don't know if you can hack it.

PK: How did you feel walking out?

COS: It was bloody difficult.

PK: Did you cope?

COS: I did OK. I think I got a touch early, and if you get a good touch early you're fine. That was always an issue playing for Ireland - it was very forward orientated. It was all about position and kicking, and you'd be almost cold for long periods at times and then suddenly have to do it. They had (Jean-Luc) Sadourny I think at full back and Philippe Sella in the middle, and their pack was just . . . Paddy Johns had something done to his eye. It was just brutal.

PK: Here's a quote from Peter Clohessy that day: "My abiding memory was standing on the sideline, with blood gushing down my head and the doctor trying to stitch me, and 'Noisy' Murphy, who was the manager, running over to me and saying: 'They're going to kill you, they're going to kill you, you're not going back on that field.' And I said, 'Noisy, you're dead fucking right I'm not.' They tormented me that day. My body was ripped to bits, my head got opened a few times and the dressing room afterwards was like the casualty room of the Regional Hospital. I could have complained but what was the point? That's what the French matches did to you."

COS: Yeah, but Claw was . . . I remember the Australia tour that year and the first Test in Brisbane and he's getting the absolute kicking of all kickings from the Australians - horrific!

He picks himself up and arrives over to the lineout and they're all laughing at him: "You've got that coming at you all day." And he looks at them: "My mother would kick me harder." (Laughs) And I think even the Australians thought: 'OK, fair play.' But those were the 'good old days' which you should never talk about because it was terrible.

PK: That violence, that thuggery, is no longer in the game.

COS: Thank God.

PK: Is rugby in a better place now than before the game went pro?

COS: Yeah.

PK: It is?

COS: Do you mean physically or ethically?

PK: Can you separate them?

COS: I think the responsibility for us is to make sure the values of the game aren't eroded, whether that's making time to sign autographs for kids like you saw today, or with head injuries and the way we look after the players. I remember the battle of Bloemfontein which is probably on your list . . .

PK: Was that a World Cup game?

COS: No, the tour to South Africa in '98. There was a 29-man fight on the pitch that day - I was the only one not fighting because I'd been clotheslined and knocked out. It was the second time in four days I'd been knocked out. The first was on the hard ground at Kimberly when I'd scored. I got up, played on, and walked into the opposition dressing room after the game looking for my gear bag. Mark McCall pulled me out - I didn't know where I was. Now that's not a badge of honour, it's just the way it was but Paul, get this right, I would do the same again.

PK: You would?

COS: I went on a panel a couple of years ago representing the coaches in England. The RFU had put together a group - 'How do we educate people on concussion?' - with two representatives from the RPA (the players' union), two DIRs (directors of rugby) and some medics. "OK," I said, "first question. It's the week of the World Cup final and Chris Robshaw gets a knock in training four days before the game. Does he play?" I asked the same question later of Paul O'Connell for a thing on TV.

PK: Yeah, I was coming to that.

3 Badge of Honour

When I started out, there was nothing like the same awareness of the impact that repeated blows to the head can have on a player. After the 2015 World Cup, I heard about a TV programme on the subject of concussion in rugby, Hidden Impact. Conor O'Shea, the former Ireland full-back who's a coach now, asked a question at the end. It was based on a hypothetical scenario: Ireland make the World Cup final, and on the Tuesday before the game Paul O'Connell gets a knock on the head in training. Conor could have named any guy in the team, obviously, but his question was straight to the point: 'Does he play?'

Paul O'Connell

'The Battle'

PK: OK, so the question is whether rugby is in a better place now than before the game went pro and one of the main arguments that it's not is a profusion of injuries and concussions. Paul O'Connell mentions your appearance on Hidden Impact in his book and addresses the question you ask: Does he play? "Right now there isn't a coach in world rugby who would rule a player out of a World Cup final on the basis that he might have had a concussion in training, five days before a game," he says. "But if they know it's different because most coaches have got good values and concern for the wellbeing of their players." Do you concur with that?

COS: Yeah.

PK: On both points?

COS: I'd like to think so, but you would probably say I'm naïve.

PK: I'm interested that you say it.

COS: No, because . . .

PK: You're obviously aware of games when it hasn't happened? When coaches haven't done the right thing?

COS: That's why it has to be independent - you have to take (the decision) away from human instinct in the heat of the moment.

PK: Away from the player and away the coach?

COS: It has to be independent. That's why I gave that example: can you imagine Paul O'Connell in the week of the World Cup final? "I'm fit. I'm fit." And (as a coach) would you want your totem gone?

PK: I interviewed one of your contemporaries recently, Laurent Benezech.

COS: Yeah, I read that.

PK: One of the issues he has raised is the medicalisation of performance in rugby. So, for example, we've a couple of players injured today but if we get some cortisone and pain killers into them we get them on to the pitch. Now that's good for the coach, but it may not be good for the player?

COS: We have to protect the player.

PK: But the player doesn't decide: "I need cortisone, I can't play." That's a doctor's call?

COS: We have to do what's right for people medically and ethically, but (the player) makes the choice. I stand in front of these guys in training when they come running down the channel sometimes and think: 'How did I ever stand in front of someone who was running like that?' But your body and mind are conditioned to it. I remember Philip Danaher shaking my hand after my first cap in '93: "I'll congratulate you when you get dropped and come back," he said. I thought: 'What the hell does that mean?' But (his point was) you have to suffer. It's easy being the golden child but the test is when you suffer a setback. And it's the same with injuries: Can you get back to that level? How hard are you willing to push yourself?

PK: I'm trying to pin you on this point but you're not answering me.

COS (laughs): That's my Kerry blood.

PK: You're the coach here, and you've a medical staff. How hands-on are you in terms of what they give to your players?

COS: How hands-on am I in the medical room? Well, maybe I should be in there now but I'm not. I can't be. A word that's often used is culture: Why was I approached to go into Harlequins after 'bloodgate'? (During the quarter-final of the 2009 Heineken Cup, Harlequins used a fake blood capsule to facilitate a tactical substitution.) There were miles better people than me but they knew what they needed.

PK: They considered you a man of values.

COS: They wanted a person that could drive the club in the direction they needed at that time . . . Look at the best coaches . . . Look at Joe (Schmidt). Joe is the best coach in world rugby in my opinion bar none.

PK: Why?

COS: Because he's driven, meticulous. I've never been coached by him but I know the attention he puts on detail, and the players, and how open he has been with me in my learning.

PK: He has?

COS: Right back to his Leinster days. I'm staying at home on Monday and Tuesday after the Ireland game and we'll meet for a coffee and a chat.

PK: You describe him as driven?

COS: Yeah, you just have to talk to the players.

PK: Is he ruthless?

COS: He's driven.

PK: Is there a difference?

COS: He wants to win. Who doesn't want to win?

PK: At what price?

COS: Well I . . .

PK: Can you be a driven, winning coach, and have the right values?

COS: Well, I've won and I've lost but I have.

PK: I'm talking generally, not personally.

COS: Well, again, yeah . . . I mean, I grew up listening to stories of Pat Spillane swimming across Kenmare Bay to get his leg right for the final in '82. He wasn't fully fit but they stuck with him. Was that a mistake? Ruthless would have been: 'Sorry Pat, your knee is not up to it.' Listen, I think we're lucky as a nation. I think Italian and Irish people are broadly similar in their ethics and their values of family and community. Are there people here who've pushed the envelope? Of course there are.

PK: (laughs) They invented the envelope here.

COS: Yeah, well, I'm talking about the closeness of family and community.

PK: OK, I want to finish this point but I'm going to keep at you. The word that keeps coming up is values. When Laurent Benezech wrote a book questioning the direction the game was going he called it: Rugby, what are your values? Gordon D'Arcy wrote a column in The Irish Times last week and the word that jumped out again was values.

COS: Yeah, I read that.

PK: So there's a theme here, 'values', and that's always going to apply when we talk about pro sport.

COS: Absolutely.

PK: You've followed the 'Grobler' story at Munster?

COS: Yes.

PK: And?

COS: (Pauses.)

PK: Any steroids guys here?

COS: No.

PK: None?

COS: Not that I know.

PK: Would it make a difference? Would you play them?

COS: No. 100 per cent. And anyone who knows me would tell you the same.

PK: Do you know I couldn't get a player to go on the record about that story?

COS: Yeah, but you lived (the omerta) in the peloton.

PK: Exactly.

COS: Listen, I want to finish here knowing I have no regrets in terms of the effort I've put in and that anything I've achieved has been achieved in the right way.

PK: I'm not directing these questions at you, personally.

COS: No, I know that.

PK: It's about your sport and where it's at.

COS: I have no issue with the questions. Do you remember what happened in '96?

PK: Michelle Smith won three gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics.

COS: I was at the University of Alabama that summer and remember ringing home: "I've just been watching this story about Janet Evans and Michelle Smith!" So this has been happening all our lives. I read what Benezech said and everyone knew what was going on in French rugby at the time, but we'd still get slammed when we lost to French teams.

PK: Did you know?

COS: Well, you didn't know, you guessed. I mean, why were they so brilliant at home and not-so-good away?

PK: Sure.

COS: Listen, I question the whole time but it's a terrible place to be - it's the right place to be but it's a terrible place to be. So I can lose sleep over something I don't control, or I can make sure that whatever we are doing here is 100 per cent. Does that mean there's not someone, somewhere doing something? No, but I'd like to think it's the exception. So we'll just get on and look after our house.

4 The Dark Side

"Let's just imagine for a minute that we could pick any Irish players we wanted to play for us here at London Irish, who would you choose to be in your team?"

"Oh, come on, Clive, that would never happen,' came one unsuspecting reply.

"Fair enough, but let's just say you wanted the best player in the Irish backline, who would it be?"

"That's easy. You'd pick Conor O'Shea straight off. He's young, he's brilliant . . . but you'd never get him to leave Ireland."

Clive Woodward


PK: I'm going to throw another date at you: January 4, 1997.

COS: Go on.

PK: It doesn't ring a bell?

COS: I'll go Ireland/Italy.

PK: Yeah. The result?

COS: We lost?

PK: Yeah.

COS: 37-21?

PK: 37-29

COS: Ahhh!

PK: Here's the question: What if someone had suggested to you that day that you would be head coach of Italy one day?

COS: Yeah, it's a really weird one.

PK: Tell me about your evolution from player to coach?

COS: It was a mistake.

PK: A mistake?

COS: A mistake in the sense that it wasn't planned.

PK: You did commerce in UCD?

COS: I did commerce, I did a diploma in legal studies in Rathmines and went into Ulster Investment Bank for a while. Then my mum, who was a career guidance counsellor and taught English in school - went to a conference and met a girl who had been to the United States Sports Academy in Alabama. I love sport, it's not a job, it's a passion and I'd been thinking of doing a sports science degree. So I met the girl and got in touch with a university in England . . .

PK: Brunel?

COS: Brunel. And then Clive Woodward flew in, and Clive could sell you anything.

PK: So you signed for London Irish and went to Brunel?

COS: Yeah.

PK: How did you meet your wife, Alex?

COS: Through Clive. He ran a business with Al's mum called 'Sales Finance' - a leasing company - and she used to house all of the vagabonds that came over from Ireland. She invited us to her house for dinner one Sunday, and that's where we were introduced.

PK: Your last game for Ireland was in the Six Nations against England in February 2000, and your last for London Irish shortly after that?

COS: I broke my leg and ruptured my ankle ligaments against Gloucester in Kingsholm. I had four operations and was trying my best to get back but when a surgeon says 'If you keep this up you'll be using a walking stick."

PK: You listened?

COS: Yeah. That same week the coach (Andy Keast) had been let go at London Irish and they said: 'We need someone.' So it was an opportunity but it brought a real challenge because I was dealing with friends . . . Kieron Dawson . . . Justin Bishop . . . fellas that you had spent a lot of time with.

PK: Did you have to change?

COS: I don't think I did, but you automatically lose the . . .

PK: Connection?

COS: Yeah. Sunbury is demolished now of course but I remember, vividly, walking down the corridor towards the changing room on day one and hearing Dawso going: "Shuuuusssh. He's coming." I walked in and said: "Dawso? Really?" And that's it - you're suddenly on the dark side, but other than that it was great. So I had a few years there, got an opportunity with the RFU and worked there for four or five years and then had a year and a half at the EIS . . .

PK: The English Institute of Sport?

COS: Yeah. The plan was to go to the London 2012 Games and to be a part of that but rugby is rugby and when 'Quins came calling . . . So I had six great years at 'Quins before these guys (Italy) came. I wanted to test myself at this level, and do something different as well.

PK: You've spent a long time out of Ireland?

COS: Twenty-three years. Initially, I suppose, there was never an opportunity (to work here) but I've had the best of a lot of worlds really. And you make different decisions when you have kids (two daughters, Isabella and Olivia).

PK: What about coming home and taking the Ireland job?

COS: No.

PK: No?

COS: Never.

PK: Really?

COS: I've said it before, I've no interest. I love my country too much to do it, if that makes sense.

PK: No, it doesn't.

COS: It can only end badly. I never want to experience that feeling I had after Lens when I flew straight back to London and did not want to come home. I always want to go to Kenmare and enjoy a stroll down to the pier and a Dover sole with prawns at 'Packie's' restaurant. So no, not that job. Is that categorical enough for you? (Laughs) Usually I'm evasive.

PK (laughs): Not usually, the odd time.

COS: My Dad would say that Kerry people will always ask more questions of you, and that you'll leave them thinking: 'They know everything about me but I know nothing about them!' But no, never. And I hope Joe stays there for a long time.

PK: What does that tell me about your ambition?

COS: I want this Italian team to be the best this country has ever produced. I want to change the whole system here and leave a lasting legacy. And I want that very badly because I'm driven, and ambitious and I want to be successful. Does success mean winning a World Cup? Well, Ireland have never got passed a quarter-final yet so . . .

PK: Sure.

COS: But success can be different things so we want to keep on improving, and if we keep on improving you never know where it will lead. We've a young team here, and I'd like to think they could be around for six or seven years. I'm also realistic enough to know that there's only so long in this life that you can talk about performance - and not just from their point of view, from mine. I want the energy of a result. You live to win.

PK: Sure.

COS: We've a big challenge (today) with England, and then probably a bigger challenge - with the emotional comedown and the physical recovery and less depth (in the squad) - six days later when we go and play Ireland. I mean people say fitness is easy - you just go from there to here - but if I break these fellas, I have no team. So it's a process, and we're doing it, you can see it in the franchises (Treviso and Zebre).

PK: OK, let's finish where we came in: you're the first Irish head coach to plot against Ireland. How will you feel when you hear Amhrán na BhFiann at Lansdowne Road next week? Will it be odd?

COS: I don't think so, but ask me after. My country is Ireland and always will be Ireland. I'm proud to be Irish. I want Ireland to win every single game other than when they play against us. The hope is that we can do something special but I know the reality, and I've said it to these fellas: if we play our best, and they play their best, they win. So there's no point in my saying: "Come on! Let's charge over the barricades and we'll kill them!" But if we play to our best, and we get a break and stay in the fight you never know.

PK: And what's next? Because you never planned any of this?

COS: I don't know.

PK: There has to be a next?

COS: Fidiamo.

PK: What's that mean?

COS (smiles): We'll see.

Sunday Indo Sport

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