Sunday 18 March 2018

World at his feet but O’Shea stays firmly grounded

Rising star biding his time despite lure of international roles, writes David Kelly

Conor O’Shea
Conor O’Shea

It has been a life that has always embraced contradictions, not rejected them. It would seem strange to many onlookers that a man born in Limerick, son to a Kerryman and a proud Irishman, should this week be striving so strenuously to defeat a Munster side in the last eight of Europe.

Not, however, when that man is Conor O'Shea.

Someone who spent his childhood years on the playing fields of Terenure College yet still harboured a dream of representing Kerry on All-Ireland football final day wallows in the quirky incongruity of life's journey.

Though he has spent his entire professional rugby career in England, he remains inextricably rooted in this country.


Now director of rugby at Harlequins, outstanding favourites to defeat Munster in next Sunday's Heineken Cup quarter-final, indeed one of the leading fancies to secure the title outright, O'Shea's fitful, frenetic career now seems primed for another giant leap.

Not surprisingly, it may lead to a tug of love between his English home and his Irish heart. Another contradictory tussle.

However, with neither the IRFU nor the RFU fully convinced of the value of roles that they may be able to offer to him, O'Shea's assertion that he will remain loyal to his employers for the time being may repel both suitors – for now.

He is one of the leading candidates to replace Ireland coach Declan Kidney – even though the latter seemingly remains engaged in contract negotiations with the IRFU or, at the very least, is explaining his unease with the vast injuries that have landed at his feet.

O'Shea, who is much happier being a coaching czar rather than a tracksuit trainer, is unlikely to wade into an Irish structure still being directed by blustering amateurs who last played rugby when O'Shea was in nappies.

Whenever there is a formula whereby the professional people are in charge, that is when O'Shea will bite – all he sees now is an amateur tail wagging a professional dog.

What of the RFU?

O'Shea already has direct experience here and, having been part of the panel that helped to select current head coach Stuart Lancaster, England now want O'Shea to succeed Lancaster as their head of player development.

Wrongly described in some media circles as an 'assistant manager' role, O'Shea would be tasked with taking charge of the RFU's Academy, U-18, U-20 and all other junior development programmes.

It is a task at once suited to O'Shea's organisational and motivational skill-sets – except, at this stage of the 42-year-old's career, you get the feeling that this may be international rugby's version of pen pushing, despite its status "at the very heart of developing elite English rugby."

O'Shea is a man who does indeed want to be at the heart of the action. He is not a man in a hurry; nevertheless, he is intensely ambitious and knows where he wants to go.

Working with the RFU would be a backward step – he already performed that role in 2005. Why retreat eight years at this stage in his development?

He claims he has a job to complete at Harlequins but, with the league champions having already added the LV Cup to their haul, what else would there be left for O'Shea to achieve were his side to ascend the European summit in – where else? – Dublin this May?

That Quins may yet again fall short in Europe leads one to suspect that, deep down, he feels that his side may not be ready to win the title until next season.

Hence his desire to remain on for one more year. The job that has been completed thus far, though, has been pretty special.

In terms of his ability to rehabilitate an organisation, his efforts at Harlequins are a testament to his talent and motivation, transforming them from the tainted villains of 'Bloodgate' to nascent European heavyweights.

Surrounding himself with quality coaching staff, O'Shea became a supreme director of operations and a smart PR man.

He became an integral component of Harlequins' emergence from the shadows of the scandal that almost derailed Leinster's maiden Heineken Cup triumph in 2009, when the side used a fake-blood capsule in an attempt to illegally exploit the blood-substitution rule for tactical purposes.

It led to the resignation and subsequent ban of director of rugby Dean Richards from the sport for three years, a ban for the player at the centre of the scandal, Tom Williams, the resignation of chairman Charles Jillings and the dismissal of physio Steph Brennan and club doctor Wendy Chapman for their roles in the affair.

It was a club in mourning, their reputation aflame upon a pyre. O'Shea helped to relaunch the phoenix.

And, while the club exorcised its demons, O'Shea was always careful never to excoriate them.

Utilising his degree in sports management, O'Shea was at pains to pay tribute to the structures already in place under Richards; after all, his predecessor's only real crime was to get caught out doing what many of his rivals were already doing.

O'Shea's skills – he started the gig with only a few weeks to go before the end of the 2009-10 season – allowed him to assess an organisation at its most critical point of crisis and low morale.

O'Shea was relieved to have a quality coaching staff already in situ – former Galwegians coach John Kingston et al – so he immediately immersed himself in player recruitment, contract negotiations, media conferences and control of team affairs on match days.

In his first full season, Harlequins won the Challenge Cup; in his second, they were crowned English champions.

O'Shea's modesty will always defer to the team effort but his influence as the titular head of that team is inescapable; that Williams was a try scorer when Quins lifted the LV Cup last month indicated just how the Irishman managed to deftly rebuild a proud, but temporarily tainted, institution with many of the materials that pre-dated him. When O'Shea commits to a task, he does so with limitless zeal.

In his Ireland days – he won 35 caps in seven seasons as a full-back at a time when being an Irish outside-back was neither popular nor profitable – O'Shea would rise at 6.0am for gym training before doing his day job in AIB.

When he didn't have evening training, he would take classes in French. He would often be frustrated by those more gifted than he who didn't put in the effort he did to maximise his gifts; hence, his tolerance for bull is rather limited.

He remains intensely loyal, however, and his commitment to Harlequins should not necessarily be dismissed as PR-speak.

After joining the flight of many Irish to the English game in the late 1990s, his stint at London Irish could have ended on a number of occasions due to big-money offers from rivals and French clubs; yet he stayed at Sunbury until his luckless premature retirement at the age of 31.


His effortless transition into an administrative role at Irish would pave the way for a decade of relentless advancement that has also seen him head the English Institute of Sport and become a post-Olympic adviser to British swimming, not to mention creating a clever media profile in this country.

The world may be at his feet but his feet are firmly on the ground.

Last month, we chatted breezily to him in Sean Lynch's pub, downing Guinness with his old Terenure College schoolmates.

Early the next morning, he flew to England to help his side win a major trophy before returning to Ireland on the Sunday for RTE's Six Nations coverage.

He felt utterly comfortable in all three roles. Sometimes he wonders if what he does is work at all.

Whoever gets to employ him next will acquire someone utterly in control of their professional destiny – of that there can be absolutely no contradiction.

Irish Independent

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