O’Shea: Italy going through growing pains but growing

England's Anthony Watson, centre tackles Italy's Matteo Minozz, right, during the Six Nations rugby union international match between Italy and England at the Olympic Stadium, in Rome, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME (AP) Conor O’Shea sits on the sofa with an espresso and a smile but can’t quite hide his frustration.

It’s not 24 hours since his Italy side lost its Six Nations rugby opener to England 46-15 in Rome. The Italians went down fighting and O’Shea is proud of that. But the six penalties conceded in England’s half still irritate him.

It’s in the details O’Shea likes to delve, and Italy is benefiting from it.

When Italy confirmed O’Shea as its first national coach from Ireland less than two years ago, he promised to produce ”the best Italian team in its history.”

Not content with Italy springing the odd upset win, O’Shea has sought to grow Italy into a consistent winner by first improving its two professional clubs, Benetton and Zebre, who fed 21 of the 23 players in the team against England.

To that end, former All Blacks fullback Kieran Crowley resigned from a contract extension as Canada coach to take the reins of Benetton two years ago, and Italy agreed to O’Shea’s recommendation last year for Zebre to hire former Ireland scrumhalf Michael Bradley, a one-time coach of Ireland who helped to improve Edinburgh and Georgia.

Both men are assisted by former internationals: Carlo Orlandi and Alessandro Troncon at Zebre; Fabio Ongaro, Ezio Galon, and Marco Bortolami at Benetton.

They are in synch with the national staff, with the goal of making all of Italian rugby better. At club level, the players are fit enough to go 80 minutes now, talent is promoted, depth is being developed, and there is constant work on skills and mindsets.

Two-thirds of the way through the Pro14, Benetton has six wins, its most since 2013. Zebre has three and rising respect. Both sides play positively, and have wins against teams in playoff positions. Their improvement doesn’t surprise O’Shea.

”We’re focused on laying the foundations and not merely papering over the cracks, because building a team, a squad, and a national system takes time,” he says. ”It’s a journey of constant growth and although not everyone stays on until the finish, everyone can have an impact on where you end up.”

Crowley and Bradley meet O’Shea and his staff once a month to seek more improvements.

O’Shea has much less time with the players, but when they’re in a national camp they’re exposed to expert advice. Former Rugby World Cup winners Brendan Venter and Mike Catt manage the defense and attack. Stephen Aboud left the Irish union to head Italy’s training, and Wayne Smith, after 15 years in New Zealand’s setup, agreed to be a part-time consultant.

Smith applauded Venter’s idea to exploit the no-ruck rule which Italy used last year to humble England for 70 minutes. The players were boosted because they were competitive and not thrashed.

Italy made it a contest with England again on Sunday until the last 10 minutes. But O’Shea believed the late slump wasn’t a fitness issue, but more about his players going ”off program.”

Two of the five new caps introduced in November started against England and were among the best on show: Flanker Renato Giammarioli and fullback Matteo Minozzi.

”It was a game we contributed so much to, and I think everyone looked at it and went, `Gee that team’s got proper potential, that wasn’t a team that was just being passionate, that was a team that played really, really good rugby,”’ O’Shea, typically upbeat, says.

”If we play like we did yesterday against a lot of other teams, not the No. 2 team in the world, we would have beaten them.

”You can feel the change within the system. I feel energized because I can see the change, but statistically, you know, yesterday’s another loss and we face Ireland in a few days.

”I’m more excited now about this challenge than I was when I came because I can actually see we’re making progress. We want to turn change into results and we will if we keep on this. The style that we’re going with, the fitness levels that we’ll get, we’re going to spring a few surprises in the years to come.”

Though Italy has one win in the Six Nations in four years, its performances have smothered talk of replacing it with the likes of Georgia.

Not far away is the Rugby World Cup next year in Japan. The Azzurri have competed at every Rugby World Cup and won 11 matches, making them the best team never to have made the quarterfinals.

By the time Italy gets to Japan, where it’s in the same pool as New Zealand and South Africa, O’Shea and the senior players are confident they will be competitive.

”I’m more than confident,” he says.

”We have our own objective for that; Sergio (Parisse, captain) and myself talked about it a couple of years ago and that’s why he’s staying on. That’s why Ali Zanni wants to be here, why Leo Ghiraldini wants to be here.

”And after the World Cup, the next four-year cycle could be incredibly exciting for Italian rugby because over the next two years you’re going to see the youngsters get the experience, you’re going to get the likes of (Michele) Campagnaro, (Leonardo) Sarto back into the fold. They’re not going to be bad.”

In the meantime, he has growing pains to endure.