Rugby

Conor O'Shea chats to Sport24

2016-11-18 10:44
Conor O'Shea (Getty Images)

Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Italy head coach CONOR O’SHEA talks about turning the Azzurri into a competitive force, Brendan Venter’s contribution and previews Saturday’s Test against South Africa.

Sport24 asked: You signed a four-year contract with Italy. How would you assess the task at hand?

Conor O’Shea: We are not going to be stupid and say that we are going to win World Cups, Six Nations titles or Grand Slams. Our primary aim is to become incredibly competitive again and I know that over the next three to four years we will achieve that objective. When I signed up for the job, I was aware of the challenges we would face, but we have a passionate group of players and staff who are willing to input the effort in order to reap the reward. We will look at tweaking our structures and accelerating the development of young players. We are also going to work extremely diligently in order to ensure that our fitness levels improve. I’m really excited for the journey that lies ahead and am absolutely unequivocal that we will make this an incredibly competitive Italian side again, which world rugby needs in my book. While it is a case of changing mindset and culture, I will strive to do it in a way that enhances rather than diminishes player spirit. It’s very easy to become pessimistic when you live in a negative world, however, I’m neither that type of person nor coach. I always look for the good in people and players and see the glass as half-full. I took the position to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone. For me, life is all about embracing new projects and expanding your horizons. When I returned from the summer tour I knew that I had, without a shadow of a doubt, made the correct decision in joining up with Italy because the people whom I work with are incredible. We need to nurture and cultivate the local game and ensure that Italian rugby is as strong as it can be because Italy is one heck of a country and the people are outstanding.

Sport24 asked: Since joining the Six Nations in 2000, Italy have finished on the bottom 11 times. Why do you feel it’s imperative to Italy’s ongoing development that you remain part of the event?

Conor O’Shea: By the time the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan comes around, as an Italian national team we want to be incredibly competitive and very difficult to play against and I believe we will be. Moreover, I’m adamant that rugby needs to expand rather than contract. The more teams capable of beating each other, the greater the chance of growing the oval-shaped game. But if you become insular and the game is only about a handful of countries, it will be a very boring world in which to exist. We require a strong Italy, Scotland and Wales and need Georgia and Romania to join the ranks. For me, how you treat people when they need your support will determine how you will be treated. In three years’ time, it could well be a big nation on the way down and a small nation on the way up.

Sport24 asked: Can we draw parallels with Italy and South Africa as teams in a state of transition?

Conor O’Shea: I believe it’s difficult to draw comparisons with ourselves and South Africa because there is a weight of expectation every time that they pull on a Springbok jersey. In my opinion, Italy and South Africa are on two different journeys at present. We are on a quest to improve and change a culture and mentality, whereas the Springboks operate in an environment where there are expectations on them in the here and now and it doesn’t allow for a period of transition because they are expected to win every match. Within a South African rugby context, the bottom line is that if you don’t win the World Cup you are seen to have failed. The talent at South Africa’s disposal is second to none and there is always an exciting new player coming out from under the stones. In terms of the Italian rugby landscape, we have time on our side because – in a football-mad country – people are aware that we have to build, grow and learn as a team with each passing session and match we play. The plan is to assemble a tight-knit group and invest in them as people as well as rugby players. There are clearly different types of pressure facing the Springboks and ourselves.  However, a common thread is confidence. Confidence is a huge factor in professional sport and moments occur within a match or season which can determine your entire outlook. It has been proved that teams which best deal with setbacks are the ones who end up achieving lasting success.

Sport24 asked: You’ve recruited Brendan Venter on a short-term basis. What value has he added?

Conor O’Shea: Brendan and I have known each other for 20 years, since our playing days for London Irish, and we are friends first and foremost. His primary commitment is to his medical practice in Cape Town, so we are delighted to have him along as a technical consultant for five weeks. However, with Brendan it’s more personal than technical because he is a people person and cares even more about the person than the player. Rugby is both my passion and profession and it’s lovely when you know someone well and can trust them. When I sit down with Brendan, we always have really good conversations about the game. There has been some talk in media circles that Brendan has the inside track on the Springboks (Venter co-facilitated the national coaching indaba and is friends with Allister Coetzee). However, in the modern world of sport and owing to the advancement of technology, the reality is that everyone already has an intimate knowledge of each other on the rugby scene. We live in a world where we know what is going on in terms of the opposition. It’s been brilliant having Brendan share his knowledge and enthusiasm of the game with the players and staff.

Sport24 asked: What type of game strategy will you be expecting from the Springboks in Florence?

Conor O’Shea: It’s tough to know which approach the Springboks will employ at the Artemio Franchi Stadium on Saturday because they boast the ability to play in any which way they want. The Springboks possess the strength up front to play a forward-dominated game. When you look at the size and physicality of the Springbok pack that has been selected by Coetzee for the clash, we are cognisant of the fact that if we are not up to the physical battle we won’t be in the match. The message is loud and clear: If you are not ready to front up physically, don’t get on the pitch with the South Africans. Meanwhile, in the back division the men in green and gold boast players who can break the game open at any stage. When South Africa go through the phases, Willie le Roux can appear as a second receiver and light up any fixture. The fullback is a very special player and we will have to be on guard against him in particular. We will have to have our wits about us as he is box office. There are a few players that you would pay to watch play and, for me, Le Roux is one of them.

Sport24 asked: What can we expect from Italy after a trying outing against the All Blacks in Rome?

Conor O’Shea: On Saturday against a full-strength Springbok side you will see a very competitive, young Italian team take to the field. We are blooding plenty of players for the future as well as having an eye on the here and now. We will ensure that we are well-prepared and will try to make life as difficult as possible for the Springboks. Our aim is to give the visitors a run for their money. While it was admittedly a difficult result against the All Blacks last week in the capital city, I was pleased with certain of aspects of our performance and we will continue to take it step by step in order to improve. I focus on momentum shifts and energy moments that occur during matches. It will take hard work in order to ensure that more and more energy moments start going our way over the 80 minutes. We know that the journey is going to be difficult because you don’t break a cycle without some tough times along the way - at stages against New Zealand were over-exuberant on defence and when you try to make things happen sometimes you forget the system. We are a work in progress and my job is the results and I will take responsibility for them. All I want the players to do is go out and give their maximum in terms of commitment, energy and intensity and deliver our game plan in the right way. We want to have a work ethic instilled within the national set-up which will enable us to improve, and it’s essentially the legacy our current crop of players can leave behind.

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Read more on:    italy  |  springboks  |  conor o'shea  |  rugby
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