Conor O'Shea excited by chance to leave mark on Italian rugby

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Italy head coach Conor O'Shea admits his 10-year-old is better at Italian than him

Anyone who has crossed paths with Conor O'Shea - from his time as a combative full-back for Ireland, to his roles at London Irish, the Rugby Football Union, and Harlequins - will vouch for his relentlessly positive approach to rugby.

It certainly hasn't served him badly: 35 caps for his country, part of the England system that brought through world-class talent such as Owen Farrell and Mako Vunipola, and dragging Quins from the humiliation of 'bloodgate' to the Premiership title.

Now O'Shea finds himself on the outskirts of idyllic Sirmione, half an hour outside Verona, preparing his Italy side for their autumn internationals campaign.

But even the eternal optimist knows he has to temper expectations.

Since joining the Six Nations in 2000, Italy have finished bottom five times - a return many feel does not justify the Azzurri's guaranteed place - while Zebre and Treviso have been perennial whipping-boys of the Pro 12.

But as he speaks to BBC Sport on the banks of Lake Garda, O'Shea is both realistic and bullish.

"We aren't going to be idiotic and say we are going to win World Cups and win Grand Slams," he says. "But you will see very, very competitive Italian teams very, very quickly.

"People will laugh at that - let them."

  • Hear our in-depth interview with Italy head coach Conor O'Shea on 5 live Rugby on Wednesday, 9 November from 21:00 GMT.
Italy, Six Nations
Italy begin their autumn international campaign against New Zealand on Saturday

Since taking over in the summer, O'Shea has not done things by half. He has moved his family - including two young daughters - to Italy, and has bought an apartment in Sirmione. The 46-year-old and his wife have weekly language lessons, but are being outshone by their girls.

"My eldest daughter has just turned 10 and she is correcting me in everything I'm saying," he laughs.

He has made some considerable moves building his backroom team, tapping into his London Irish contacts. Mike Catt - this time last year England's attack and skills coach - is on the staff, as is Brendan Venter, the man responsible for the Saracens revolution, and one of the sharpest thinkers in the game.

"We need to get that balance between Brendan's pragmatic approach towards the game of rugby, and myself and Catty's approach," O'Shea adds.

"If we can get that balance - and Ciccio [Giampiero de Carli] provides the forward platform, which we will have - we will be competitive. It's not going to change tomorrow, but it's going to change.

"Our job is to change Italian rugby. That's what we intend to do."

Italy's autumn international fixtures
Saturday, 12 NovemberNew Zealand14:00 GMT, Stadio Olimpico
Saturday, 19 NovemberSouth Africa14:00 GMT, Stadio Artemio Franchi
Saturday, 26 NovemberTonga14:00 GMT, Stadio Euganeo

O'Shea has been encouraged by the grassroots enthusiasm for the game, and the ego-free attitude of the players at the top

But in a sporting world obsessed with "marginal gains", he says there are "massive gains" to be made in Italian rugby, from structure and administration, to confidence.

"I would say we have massive gains before we start talking marginal, and that's quite exciting," he says.

"The tour to Argentina in the summer was a breath of fresh air, meeting the guys and seeing the lack of ego. But they need to be given so much more off the pitch.

"It's not going to change overnight, but the system is already here - it just needs tweaking - to make sure the young players have the proper development pathway and systems to support them.

"The cycle Italian rugby is in at the moment is that we are lacking in confidence - as well as some of the things that need to be done off-field - and we have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start making a difference ourselves, because it will be led by players and the coaching team to make some changes and cascade that down through the system."

While he knows he will be judged by the senior team's results, O'Shea wants to leave a mark on the whole game in Italy.

"Obviously I'll be judged on what happens with the first team, but I want to help them with the system, whether it's going down to Rome, Lazio and Fiamme Oro, or going to Petrarca, Viadana, Rovigo," he says.

Chris Robshaw and Conor O'Shea in 2012
O'Shea (right, with captain Chris Robshaw) guided Harlequins to their first Premiership title, in 2012

"There is a lot of talent. I would love people to come out and actually look, rather than chuck a stone at it. This system does need to be developed, because it could be competitive, and that's what we need.

"We need to be a competitive Italy, competitive franchises, and once we start that the confidence and mindset will change."

But what is his message to the doubters, those that feel Italian rugby is a busted flush, and should no longer be accustomed to the top table of European rugby, whether that is the Six Nations or the Pro 12?

"Be very careful of what you wish for, in every walk of life. Never become arrogant, because on your way down you will meet people on their way back up. And you will need a friend. And Italy will be up, and somebody else will be down," O'Shea warns.

"And that's where the friendships and people supporting you in your times when you need them, is important.

"Rugby needs to expand, not contract. I guarantee you there is a will - and a way - over here to make us more and more competitive.

"Do things need to change? Massively, you would be idiotic not to say that. But is there the will? Of course there is."

The small matter of a wounded New Zealand is O'Shea's first assignment this autumn - "I'm excited to see this Italian side play against the best side in the world, then we will have a really good judge" - before matches against South Africa and Tonga.

"I've talked to some of the more experienced players - Sergio Parisse, Simone Favaro, Leo Ghiraldini, Alessandro Zanni - they want to win now and leave a mark on the future of Italian rugby.

"We are going to improve every game, learn every game, and get better every game," he says.

"Molto a fare, molto a fatto - so much done and so much to do - but it's exciting."

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