2018 Six Nations: Conor O'Shea aiming for big upset over Ireland with Italy

By Cian MurtaghBBC Sport NI
O'Shea's final game in an Ireland shirt was the 50-18 defeat by England in 2000
O'Shea's final game in an Ireland shirt was the 50-18 defeat by England in 2000
2018 Six Nations
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday, 10 February Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra and BBC Radio Ulster from 14:10 GMT; text commentary and report on BBC Sport website.

In the land of his birth, Conor O'Shea is better known as a television pundit than a rugby coach.

The former full-back's thoughtful, balanced analysis provided a counter point to his peers on the RTE panel.

His playing career took him to England in 1995 to play for London Irish, where he took his first coaching steps before moving on to the RFU and Harlequins.

On Saturday, O'Shea returns to Dublin as the Italy head coach and will attempt to upset Joe Schmidt's side

He will be hoping his homecoming will provide him with happier memories than his final outing in an Ireland jersey.

In the wake of their disastrous 1999 Rugby World Cup campaign, which ended with the infamous loss to Argentina in Lens, Ireland were under pressure at the start of the inaugural Six Nations in 2000.

O'Shea was named Italy head coach in March 2016 and led them to their first win over South Africa later that year
O'Shea was named Italy head coach in March 2016 and led them to their first win over South Africa later that year

In a show of faith, Warren Gatland selected 11 of the players that started the game against the Pumas for the opening match against England in Twickenham, with O'Shea lining-up in his customary position at full-back.

Ben Cohen and Austin Healy each scored two tries that day and O'Shea was called ashore in the 48th minute as England steamrolled their way to a then record 50-18 victory.

A fortnight later, Gatland handed debuts to Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Shane Horgan, Simon Easterby and John Hayes as Ireland beat Scotland by 22 points and O'Shea's Test career was over.

"He was kind of involved in my first Six Nations game as assistant coach but then he lost out to Girvan Dempsey and he never appeared again," recalled former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan.

Apart from O'Shea, O'Sullivan is the last Irishman to attempt to engineer the downfall of the men in green when he was in charge of USA at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

"It fell on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 so it was a very emotional time for the players but the weirdest part was the anthems because you're standing with the Americans and they're all singing the Star Spangled Banner and then when Ireland's Call strikes up you don't know should you be singing or not," recalled O'Sullivan.

"It was a weird experience, to know that you were pushing a large boulder up a very steep hill to go out and give it a crack against Ireland, so I think Conor will be in that space as well.

"He wants Italy to go and really put it up to Ireland this week because that's a reflection on him and his skills as well."

O'Shea scored six tries in 35 Test appearances for Ireland
O'Shea scored six tries in 35 Test appearances for Ireland

The son of an All-Ireland winning Gaelic footballer, who also represented Ireland at the European Economic Community and the United Nations, it is no surprise that O'Shea has forged a career as one of rugby's great diplomats.

His reputation is such that Harlequins recruited him to take over the club in the wake of the bloodgate fiasco that cost Dean Richards his job as director of rugby.

"We had been through a pretty dark time in the club's history," said Quins backs coach and former New Zealand fly-half Nick Evans.

"To be honest, I hadn't really known too much about Conor except for playing occasionally as Ireland in Jonah Lomu Rugby on the Playstation!"

"What really struck me firstly was just how positive he was. He has a really infectious positivity about him.

"I think the stand out legacy of what Conor brought to us at Quins was that he had a really good way of getting the players to buy in to the culture that he entrusted the players to develop themselves.

"He was always a glass half-full guy and he just got us to believe more so than we had done before."

O'Shea's ability to change a team's culture, combined with his reputation as a coach and an administrator - he was the English Institute of Sport's National Director in the build up to London 2012 - made him the stand-out candidate for the Italian Rugby Federation when they went in search of a replacement for Jacques Brunel in 2016.

However, his time in charge of the Azzurri has been littered with narrow defeats as he attempts to improve the structures within the Italian game.

An historic victory against South Africa in November 2016 remains the high point of his 18 matches in charge, during which he has overseen just four wins.

Last Sunday, Italy trailed England by seven points at half-time before slumping to a 46-17 loss at the Stadio Olimpico - so the team remains a work in progress.

Ireland beat Italy 63-10 in their 2017 Six Nations meeting in Rome
Ireland beat Italy 63-10 in their 2017 Six Nations meeting in Rome

"Sometimes with the USA Eagles when we were playing big teams I would look at my watch 20 minutes in and you think, 'oh gosh, there's another hour of this'," recalled O'Sullivan.

"There's a great saying, 'you've got to dance with the ladies at the ball', and really he's got to just deal with the players that come out of the two franchises or the handful that are playing overseas.

"Italian rugby has been in the Six Nations now for nearly years and they're still the whipping boys. They pick off the odd game but if you lose to Italy in the Six Nations, it's a catastrophe - it was for Ireland when they lost in 2013 in Rome."

As O'Shea prepares for his return to Lansdowne Road to take on the team ranked third in the world, Evans believes his former coach can draw on the memory of one of his greatest wins with Harlequins to help him to create an upset.

"I remember when we had Munster away in the Challenge Cup semi-final in 2011, when everyone was telling us how no one beats Munster at Thomond Park - they had only lost there once in over 15 years," said Evans.

"All through the week, Conor was telling us to talk Munster up in every interview we did in the media, to say how great they were and how good they are at home because he was saying that the Irish hate being favourites.

"So we went over there as big underdogs and he seemed to thrive on that, I don't know if it was a personal thing for him in Limerick or not, but it was infectious and we really got hold of that."

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