CONOR O’SHEA is very much the man for the ‘now’. In his first season at the helm of Harlequins, the former Ireland full-back is interested not a jot in the London club’s turbulent recent past. His varied career path since being forced to retire prematurely through injury confirms his admission that he is not the person to plan too far ahead.
So when he was asked to discuss tonight’s Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final and local derby with Wasps, the club’s first big European tie since the infamous ‘Bloodgate’ scandal of 2009, O’Shea struggled to see any further than last Saturday evening’s Aviva Premiership clash with Leicester Tigers.
“To be honest, I won’t start thinking about Wasps until Saturday night,” O’Shea said last week. “All my focus is on Leicester.”
It was a fair point, albeit in vain as Harlequins lost a tense and often fractious game at The Stoop 13-17. Quins were lying fifth in the English league table, one spot outside the all-important Premiership semi-final places after a run of bad form threatened to derail what had been quite the dream start for O’Shea.
The former Lansdowne and London Irish back turned rugby coach and sports administrator had returned to rugby in March 2010 following a stint as national director of the English Institute of Sport to fill the void at The Stoop left by the departure of director of rugby Dean Richards — part of the fallout of the Bloodgate controversy that rocked the foundations of the club the previous May.
Richards was the man at the top when Quins, locked in a tight home Heineken Cup quarter-final tussle with Leinster, engineered a blood substitution to get a kicker back on to the field in order to try and break the deadlock. The subsequent disciplinary hearing determined that former England No 8 Richards had ordered wing Tom Williams to bite on a fake-blood capsule and feign injury and had played a part in covering up the scam.
With the club left shell-shocked by the scandal, Quins, having crashed out of the following season’s Heineken Cup without a win in six pool matches, turned to O’Shea to restore stability and steer a young squad into a brave new future.
Bloodgate has now been placed firmly in the past and O’Shea is understandably keen to look ahead.
“I wasn’t part of that and every club has its history so I was just focused on the players,” he said of his arrival at Quins last March. “Players are all about looking forward and always thinking about the next match and are not really embroiled in a lot of the stuff that goes on.
“I took over a group of young guys who are desperate to be successful. They’re more than a bit frustrated with the last six or seven weeks. We’d got ourselves into a really, really good position in the league and certainly through the Six Nations it hasn’t gone as well with one win in four but we came straight out of the Six Nations and we knew we needed at least one win in that period to leave matters in our own hands. There’s still a lot to play for this season and there’s a real focus on the future.
“I knew a lot of the lads before I went in anyway and they’re an energetic and enjoyable group to be around, who like to enjoy life and enjoy professional rugby. Hopefully over the next two or three years they’re going to become stronger and stronger because the aim we have is to keep this group together. They’re competitive now and they’re gaining experience, rugby experience, and with their natural maturation we believe we can go on to be one heck of a team. So that’s the plan.”
A rousing, seven-try win over Gloucester with England stars Nick Easter and Danny Care back on board following their Six Nations campaign confirmed that O’Shea has his players heading in the right direction. With the Leicester game now out of the way, he sees a first European quarter-final for his club in two seasons as part of that process.
“We were bitterly disappointed not to make the final of the LV= Cup the other week having played fantastic rugby but fair play to Newcastle, who hung in there and stole it with the last play of the game. That was a game we probably could and should have won but now we have a chance with another home quarter-final. We want to finish off with something tangible from it.”
WASPS stand in the way this weekend but Harlequins have had the upper hand in their previous meetings this season. “We’ve played them three times this year, drawn one and won a couple of times. It’s a local derby, it’s a cup quarter-final and there’s some special teams left in the competition. We’ve come through a tough pool with Connacht and Bayonne in it (and Cavalieri Estra) lost only once and ended up with a home quarter-final. The fact that it’s against our local rivals just adds a bit of spice.”
If Quins do reach the semi-finals and a possible match at Thomond Park if Munster beat Brive, O’Shea will also delight in the character shown by his squad in overcoming a difficult period over the winter that reached its nadir during the Six Nations.
“We won nine games in a row in the middle of the season and probably started thinking more about the outcome rather than the process that was involved in it. We picked up a huge number of injuries at the wrong time and Nick Easter and Danny Care went away with England. We lost our other eight and nine, who both got injured, George Robson got injured, Ollie Smith and George Lowe, our outside centres, both got injured, and not just at the wrong time, but when we were just set to really kick on.
“But we learned a lot about each other. There were a lot of lads asked to step up and they’ve done brilliantly.
“But we’re back to full strength now. At times we only had 25 players available for 23 positions and now we’ve suddenly got upwards of 40 including our academy.
“They’re keen and they’re predominantly young — none of the team who played Gloucester last week were under 25 — and they want to play but they want to play with a smile on their face. We need something tangible from the good work they’ve put in. We had that sticky patch at just the wrong time but we’ve learned the lessons and we need to finish the season strongly.”
Success, too, would also reflect very well on O’Shea’ s decision to move back into rugby yet the career switch was never part of a plan, he says .
“I don’t really plan too much to be fair. I just try and do the best that I can and I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity that I’ve had now because rugby is my passion.
“I had a great couple of years with the Institute of Sport and I learned a lot just from the exposure to the 48 Olympic and Paralympic sports over the last couple of years. I’m just delighted to be back with a group of players who are so hellbent on being successful.
“At times maybe you could accuse them of wanting it too much. They are so desperate to succeed in a Harlequins jersey they maybe get caught up in that. But I never really get caught up in my career path. I just enjoy the present. It can be the greatest job in the world and it could be the most horrible job in the world because week in, week out, your key performance indicator is every Saturday.”
His ongoing success at Harlequins makes him a leading homegrown candidate to replace Declan Kidney as Ireland head coach should the present incumbent ever decide to walk away but the Ireland job is not on his agenda, he says, before nominating some candidates of his own.
“Not at all. Mark McCall is doing a fantastic job at Saracens, David Humphreys is doing an incredible job with Ulster. I never think about anything other than the next game and there’s some outstanding people out there, like Eric Elwood down in Connacht and coming through the ranks.
“It’s actually very nice to pick up the phone to all those guys. We all played together, myself, Humps, Mark and Eric and there’s plenty of people more qualified. I just enjoy what I do.”