Conor O’Shea is part of the English rugby hierarchy these days, but he still cares passionately about Italy and mounts a stirring defence against calls for them to face relegation from the Six Nations.
The RFU’s director of performance rugby was head coach of the Azzurri from March 2016 until the end of the last World Cup. He strove in vain to end their winless run in the championship, while overseeing the development of a new generation of talent. Now, under Franco Smith, the Italian struggle goes on. The 50-10 defeat at home to France last Saturday was their 28th consecutive loss in Europe’s annual showpiece international tournament.
Italy’s last victory was over Scotland at Murrayfield way back on February 28, 2015. On Saturday, they will come to Twickenham to take on wounded England and lose for the 29th time in a row. Former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton is among the high-profile figures who argue that Georgia deserve the opportunity to replace Italy in the Six Nations. ‘Enough is enough’ was his exasperated message after the latest Italian capitulation in Rome.
Conor O’Shea was head coach of the Azzurri from 2016 until the end of the World Cup in 2019
But O’Shea offered an emphatic riposte, telling Sportsmail: ‘The easy thing is just to question what Italy are doing, but when you look at their style of play, they’re infinitely better than Georgia. They are trying to play a really good brand of rugby under Franco.
‘The questions will always be trotted out, ‘Should they be there? Should there be relegation?’ My view is that they earned their place in the first place and my view will never change that our job, in rugby, is to promote the sport. Our job is to have a strong Georgia and a strong Romania and strong Pacific island teams. How do we grow the game?
‘The worst thing you can do now is contract, and some decisions now could make that happen, which you shouldn’t do. We should all want teams like Georgia and Romania to grow, but let’s not kill off any other nation while we’re at it.’
Italy faced Georgia in Florence in November, 2018 and – well aware of how the result would resonate – they beat the Lelos 28-17. It was ‘more comfortable than the scoreline showed’ according to O’Shea. His view is that the Azzurri are constantly involved in high-class, meaningful matches, whereas the Georgians dominate the second-tier Rugby Europe Championship and play occasional Tests against leading countries, who use the occasion to experiment.
‘Italy don’t play second teams and they don’t play non-competitive games,’ he said. ‘People would be licking their lips about what they could do to Georgia (in the Six Nations) rather than using that game to try 500 different permutations. It’s a different competition.’
Italy were thrashed 50-10 at home by France on Sunday – their 28th Six Nations loss in a row
Discussing Italian rugby generates so much enthusiasm in O’Shea. He talks about their vast potential and the strides made at age-group level. He name-checks Benetton flanker Michele Lamaro as an emerging star and a future Azzurri captain. He enthuses about the impact made by Welsh-born Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney, but laments the absence of his injured club-mate Jake Polledri, which robs Italy of a ‘world-class’ ball-carrying asset to unleash on England.
Asked how the visitors will approach the daunting assignment that awaits in south west London, O’Shea said: ‘It is about how you break that psychological barrier, but they will come to play at Twickenham. They will hold on to the ball, go through phases and ask questions. It’s a hell of a tough gig for them but they will be thinking, ‘How do we upset the apple cart?’.’
That is exactly what O’Shea’s side did four years ago, with their ‘Fox’ tactic which caught England cold. The Italians didn’t contest the breakdown, but exploited a loophole in the laws to block English passes, knowing that they were not off-side, as it appeared. The hosts eventually unscrambled their brains to win, but Eddie Jones slammed a strategy which he argued was against the spirit of the game and World Rugby swiftly closed the loophole.
Franco Smith has been given the task of ending their winless run in the championship
Reflecting on the famous episode, O’Shea said: ‘Our outlook was, if we continue to do the same thing, we will continue to get the same results. It was a case of thinking, ‘How do you give a realistic hope to a group of people when they are going into the lions’ den?’.
‘By giving them a plan, we did that. At the start of the week, some of the players were saying, ‘What are we doing?’. By the end of the week they were all saying, ‘This is brilliant’. I just sent them out and said, ‘You do it, we’ll see what happens and I’ll take the consequences’.
‘That’s what rugby is about; different ways of attacking and defending. There is no one way that’s the right way, you just have to ask questions the whole time. At least it was a talking point, but in the end, we lost the game. We had an opportunity, but we lost the game.’
Sadly for Italy, they keep losing the games and their place in the Six Nations continues to be a talking point. O’Shea is adamant that their future can be bright, but Smith will know he needs to find a win, somewhere, to provide breathing space. Twickenham won’t be the place he finds it though.
O’Shea’s Italy caught England cold in the first half four years ago with their ‘fox’ tactic