Had he turned to the first page dedicated to his adopted country in the glossy 112-page bible of championship statistics, the Irishman will have learned the organisers had not even included his name, instead leaving predecessor Jacques Brunel in situ as head coach.
Such is the burden of a team that has not finished higher than fourth but accumulated six whitewashes and 11 wooden spoons in its 17-year residence at European rugby’s top table. Throw in two woefully under-performing club franchises and serious questions being asked about their right to an automatic berth in the Champions Cup and it is no wonder O’Shea’s first order of business is to restore respect.
There has already been progress, Italy defeating South Africa for the first time in its history last November in Florence, in what was O’Shea’s second game in charge. Yet losses either side, 68-10 to New Zealand and then a disappointing 19-17 reverse to Tonga the week after the Springboks win have underscored the former Ireland full-back’s feeling there simply isn’t any respect for the Italians.
“Just see the way teams play. You get a penalty against Italy, what do they do? They kick in the corner. They never kick to goal,”
O’Shea, 46, said this week during the RBS 6 Nations media launch in London, which he attended with captain Sergio Parisse.
“Do they play differently against us? Of course they do, because they play with freedom in their minds. That’s what we said before the South African game, ‘you watch the pressure begin to reverse when they see we’re not going away’, because teams know when a team is able to go for 80 minutes and after a pretty bad defeat to the All Blacks I came away saying that’s the best defeat we could ever have because we actually showed we had the ability intensity-wise and physicality to go 80 minutes.
“When you read newspapers and hear what’s said about Italian rugby it is disrespectful because it doesn’t give a full understanding of how special the history is and we should be looking to nourish and not let wither on the vine an incredible rugby country.
“When I go into Petrarca or Calvisano or Viadana, all the clubs steeped in tradition, and you see the pictures on the walls and you think of the teams that I played against in the 90s and great players now like Sergio (Parisse); you think of some of the young players coming through, we don’t have the money of other countries but we have to invest properly to make sure we nourish what is there because Rome on a spring day is a pretty special place to be and we want to see a really competitive and strong Italian side.
“I said to the players, I want to come back, maybe doing some TV work in 10 or 15 years and feel that we’ve contributed something. Maybe we can have a beer together and say ‘wow, we really did contribute to something of a regeneration’ because it has been and it needs to be again.”
Italy has just 12 wins and a draw in 72 Six Nations matches and the 2016 championship, the last of Brunel’s five-year stint, produced a second winless sweep in the last three seasons. O’Shea has adopted a squad with a loser’s mindset.
“I think mentality is a big thing. If I keep on coming to you and saying ‘you have a crap newspaper, you’re a crap writer, your editor’s rubbish’ it wears on you. It’s human nature and if you keep on reading ‘this is bad’.... that is not to say we’re delusional.
“We talked the whole time on the plane over, what needs to be changed, what can help the franchises to become better and the pathways... because changes have to be made.
“The pathway’s good, the system has to change in so many ways, but so many of these guys, they’re told literally the whole time they’re not good enough and it is a negative culture which makes it very difficult to become positive.
“So what would I focus on most? Focus on stop feeling sorry for yourself, look at some of the players we have and not just Sergio. Simone Favaro, Maxime Mbanda, Carlo Canna, Edo Padovani — I think his fifth game ever at full back was against South Africa and he won man of the match, what can he develop into.”
Wales are Italy’s opening opponents in Rome tomorrow week, followed six days later by the visit of his fellow Irishmen to the Stadio Olimpico.
“We want them to leave the field thinking this is a different Italy,” he said.
“We’re not winning World Cups, we’re not winning Six Nations, there’s two definites, but we will be unbelievably competitive because he (Parisse) is not sitting here to lose games of rugby.
“So don’t take this as a white flag but we will control what we can control. If we put in a performance, the psychology, the pressure is on all the other teams because they’re expected to beat us.
“The longer we can stay in a game, the more likely it is the pressure will turn and then hopefully we’ll get a bit of a break, we’ll get a bit of magic, a decision that goes our way; that’s what sport is, little things in matches that when they go your way you’ll get a win and hopefully we’ll have more great days like South Africa.”