Conor O’Shea is just a handful of months into a four-year term as Italy coach but the former Ireland international has already begun to make an impression far beyond the borders of the national squad.
News of his move from Harlequins to Italy broke last March and the 45-year old spoke about his intention to build the “best Italy team ever” prior to a summer tour of the Americas that delivered close wins against the USA and Canada after a six-point loss to Argentina.
His family made the move only this month. Home now is the world heritage city of Verona where Shakespeare set three of his most famous plays and which lies, symbolically, roughly halfway between Treviso and Parma, the latter the base for Zebre.
O’Shea will spend one day per week with each of the Guinness PRO12 clubs and there is clearly a ton of work to be done given something as basic as individual performance plans for players are still not part of the furniture in Italian rugby as elsewhere.
Improving the performances of Benetton Treviso and Zebre is an obvious goal for O’Shea and the Italian union and the repatriation of a number of national team players from France and England to the two outfits is a signal of the sea change that is being sought.
There is no risk of making things worse. Treviso and Zebre have filled out the bottom two spots on the PRO12 ladder in the last three seasons, their failure to register anything akin to progress after six years in the league standing as a major black mark.
Kieran Crowley can’t find fault with that conclusion.
The Kiwi has also made the move to Italy, in his case after eight years over the Canadian national team, and he sends his Treviso side into competitive action for the first time on Friday when they face Leinster at the RDS.
Crowley spent a few weeks in the country last February before returning some months later full-time and it was soon apparent that major structural change was required in an Italian system where everyone appeared to be rowing their own boats.
“My first impression there was that you had a Zebre here and a Treviso over there and then an Italian union sitting in the middle and no-one was really working together. Conor has made strides already to get that happening.
“From my point of view, the more we can work with the national coach, who is part of the national union, then that can help our performances in the PRO12 and ultimately the Italian national team as well.” Crowley and O’Shea do seem to be reading off the same page. O’Shea, who has also persuaded Mike Catt and former IRFU employee Stephen Aboud to join him as attack coach and head of development respectively, has spoken of the need to “break the cycle” of how Italy perform and Treviso are a microcosm of that.
Six PRO12 victories in 44 games this past two seasons has bred a culture of defeatism in a team that, like the Azzurri, are renowned for their pack’s abrasiveness and little else. Crowley will be zeroing in on three elements: culture, leadership and style of play.
“Even the two games they won last year I actually watched, they tried like hell to lose those in the last 10 minutes because they tried not to lose. That’s a mindset change and you have to keep getting into those positions to change that. Treviso, Zebre and Italy are all used to losing.
“It’s all been about their scrum, their false bravado, their physical confrontation and you have to have that to a certain extent, but it has all been about emotion and emotion lasts for about 29 minutes.
Treviso never hooked a rugby ball in a scrum last year.
“They just went for 30-second scrums. Their backs got no play so, yeah, I thought they had some reasonable backs out wide last year but they never got a chance. They’ll get a chance this year. Whether they can manage to create the tries we will have to see.”
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