New coach O'Shea sees fitness as key to Italy improvement
New national rugby coach Conor O'Shea pinpointed fitness and mental strength as the key areas to transform the Azzurri into "the best Italian team ever."
O'Shea, who was confirmed as Jacques Brunel's successor in March, gave his first news conference as Italy coach on Tuesday after seeing out his job as the Harlequins director of rugby.
The 45-year-old O'Shea, the first Irishman to coach Italy, showed the benefit of intensive language lessons as he spoke passable Italian.
"I played against a really strong Italy team in the 90s," said the former fullback, who earned 35 caps for Ireland from 1993-2000. "This group, with the right mentality, can become better than that. I want to see this team become the best Italian team ever."
Italy finished the last Six Nations without a win, wilting badly especially in the last two matches, heavy defeats at Ireland and Wales. The whitewash fuelled talk about whether the Azzurri should continue in the Six Nations.
O'Shea, who has signed a four-year contract that will incorporate the 2019 Rugby World Cup, believes Italy can be competitive during his tenure, and challenge for the Six Nations.
"Yes, or I wouldn't be here," he said. "It will be very hard but I see in the president, the people I've met in the system, they want Italy to be successful, and there's so many good young players. We have to break the cycle of how we perform. And if we do that, the talent is there.
"It's easy to be excited today but I know it will be hard. But it will also be fun. Challenges is what life is about and this is a great challenge. Everything is easy on the first day, and then sadly the matches happen."
O'Shea pointed out that Italy could have beaten France in the opening match of the Six Nations but missed a late dropped goal, while it trailed England only 11-9 after 50 minutes, before missing a penalty and going on to lose 40-9.
"The margins in sport are small. But it's a big gap to bring down mentally, to change people's mindset," O'Shea said. "I want to make Italian people proud in the way they play, to fight to the very end."
O'Shea harked back to the players' mindset and fitness several times.
"At the start of every game, you see an Italian team with passion, emotion. Then at 20 minutes, slower; 40 minutes, slower; 60 minutes, space," he said. "And that's what teams think when they play against Italy, and we have to change that. We have to identify players who are able to do that. We have fantastic players at senior level but we also have to have players coming through. We have to identify players who have the mindset to make the difference."
O'Shea, assisted by former England back Mike Catt, can instil his philosophy in his new players as early as next month, when he leads Italy on a tour of Argentina, the United States, and Canada.
He used Italy captain Sergio Parisse as an example of the mindset he wants in the rest of the squad.
"I dont think it's about winning mentality, it's about not accepting defeat," O'Shea said. "The best players are the people who can cope with adversity, who've come back from adversity, who are never willing to accept second. It's about how you react when things are tough.
"Sergio never accepts losing. He comes back every time for his country, and he plays as if it's a new start. Every player has to be like that."