Italy boss Conor O’Shea insisted there are still big days ahead for his current squad, despite the 63-10 hammering they took at the hands of his native Ireland in Rome on Saturday.
The nine tries to one thumping at Stadio Olimpico made sobering viewing for the Azzurri’s new head coach, who had got his tenure off to a stunning start in November when Italy recorded a first win over South Africa in Florence.
A rampant Ireland performance and the crushing defeat that followed, though, only resurrected questions from the Italian media about where the long-term future of their national side lay, and former Irish full-back O’Shea, sitting alongside his captain Sergio Parisse, dealt with them head on, making a passionate defence of his players and instead focusing on the support structures that needed to be put in place to bring the best out of them.
“I’m not going to sit beside Sergio and talk about a long-term project because I know this group have some great days in them but we have to learn, get mentally stronger and we have a lot to change in Italian rugby to get that,” O’Shea said.
“I could name a lot of players in the 1990s who were great Irish rugby players and without the right support were not able to fulfil what they were capable of doing.
"We have a really good group of players. People will smile wryly and hang their heads but we will never hang our heads and our intention is to fight tooth and nail to make the changes and also get some short-terms results.
"It’s very tough today but we must be ready... ahead of the England match. Focus must be our next job and our next job is England at Twickenham in two weeks.
“Anyone involved in turning businesses around know there are things that have to happen.
“We are proud people sitting up here and we don’t like today. I hate days like this but we know what we have to do and we are working together for Italian rugby. Today was hard, it’s a different challenge. That Ireland team is better than the Welsh team we played, 100%.”
O’Shea said Italy paid a huge price for having to cope with Ireland’s high-intensity start, which yielded three tries inside the first half-hour and led to one Italian journalist comparing his players to a Serie B basketball team facing an NBA outfit.
“In the first 20 minutes we took a battering,” the former Harlequins director of rugby said.
“Today was an incredibly hard day. There will be mistakes we made in terms of the set-piece and almost inviting pressure. We talked about Ireland’s ability to hold onto the ball through a lot of phases which is different to Wales.
"That first 20 minutes they were outstanding, we had a lot of difficulties. After eight, nine or 10 phases, someone will make an error and the score will come but credit to Ireland for taking it through the phases.
“It wasn’t about game-plan today, we played against a team which, if you cut everything back, is better than us at this stage and the physical battering we took, took its toll by the end of the game. We’ll have better days and other hard days during this journey we need to take.”
O’Shea said he wanted his players to regain the respect of Six Nations opponents in terms of the way they made decisions during games against them.
“I’ve no doubt one of the many things we need to change is the respect other teams have for us because mentally teams come here with the expectation of winning and play with a different freedom.
"Three points against another team which is higher ranked, (taking) three points against England in a Championship decider is completely different from going for the jugular for us (by kicking to the corner instead of goal-kicking).
"No doubt the mind plays a huge part in games, we have to change our mindset and the respect other teams have for us.”
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