Rome - Coach Conor O'Shea insists the groundwork is being
laid to break the cycle of defeat as Italy prepare to avoid another Six Nations
mauling against champions England in Rome this weekend.
The 47-year-old Irishman took over in March 2016 and apart
from the high of an historic win over South Africa over a year ago Italy have
won just one of their last 11 Tests.
A win against Fiji 19-10 and heavy losses against Argentina
31-15 and South Africa 35-6 in November Tests have not given Italy's
long-suffering fans reason for optimism.
But after an afternoon visit to the Colosseum in Rome where
gladiators once fought bloody battles to the death, O'Shea this week discussed
the painstaking progress of building a team which can realistically hope to
challenge in the future.
"It's really hard because we're competitive people,
(captain) Sergio (Parisse), myself, all the squad, the coaches," O'Shea
"We want to win every game we play. We prepare to win
every game. But we're also realistic. I can't stand in front of people and say
'we'll win the Grand Slam, we'll win the Six Nations, we'll win the World Cup',
they will look at me and say 'you're stupid'.
"What we do control is our performances. If we play our
best and England, or Ireland or France play at their best level, they will
win... at the moment.
"What we're doing is making sure that our goal is to
play to our best. And we'll see. Because sport is sport and it's 15 against 15
and things can happen within matches.
"It's difficult for the fans to understand that we're
on the right track even if we lose. It's tough, it's a hard, hard ask all the
time, to pick yourself up and to go again."
Statistics aren't on their side. Since entering the
tournament in 2000, the Italians have finished bottom of the table 12 times.
But improved performances by the Pro14 clubs Treviso and
Zebre have lifted hopes among Azzurri fans, and seen the internationals arrive
in better shape mentally and physically.
"The good thing is something happened in the last
number of months in terms of the Scottish, the Welsh and the Irish rugby unions
- the Pro14 - they've looked at what we're doing and they know now we're on the
right road," said the former Harlequins coach.
The right road he explains is nurturing young talent to step
up to the level of veterans Parisse, 34, hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, 33, and
lock Alessandro Zanni, 34, in the twilight of their careers.
"We want a system and a process that our team have the
right environment and can grow and grow."
That environment includes an experienced coaching staff of
England's Mike Catt, New Zealand's Wayne Smith, performance director Pete Atkinson,
along with the recent additions of a nutritionist and psychologist.
"It's more in the communications as opposed to the
mental," explains O'Shea a former Irish international fullback who played
most of his career with London Irish.
"It's just bringing in bits and pieces and all the time
trying to add to what we have.
"If we had a magic wand, a couple of million pounds, a
bigger budget, we'd make every change, right now.
"We build around what we've got, no point doing the
fluffy nice things if you haven't the fundamentals in place."
The depth of talent available has also improved and O'Shea
is now able to take risks with 20-year-old Treviso prop Marco Riccioni set to
earn his first cap.
"I look at some of the competition now for the squad
and say 'phew, there's some headaches for me' and even Sergio turned to me the
other day and said 'Jeepers you're going to have some selections to
make'," said O'Shea.
"I'm hoping this Six Nations yes we see Sergio, see
Ale, see Leo Ghiraldini get some days that they'll remember, they've had a good
few of those already, but also I want people to see Giovanni Licata, Matteo
Minozzi and Renato Giammarioli and some of these young guys and go 'woah, now
This Six Nations Italy follow their England clash with trips
to Dublin, France and Wales, wrapping up against Scotland back in Rome on March
Against England "our job is to play to our maximum and
see where it takes us," said O'Shea, "they play to theirs they'll
But he also warned that Italy wanted to take advantage of
the support in the Stadio Olympico.
"The support here is incredible. I'm just so desperate
to win for the supporters."