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Conor O'Shea: 'What Steve did in a short sprint was incredible'

By Liam Heagney
Ex-Italy boss Conor O'Shea (right) became RFU high performance director in 2020 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Conor O’Shea was like a circus ringmaster last Thursday, enthusiastically jumping on a Zoom call with a host of media representatives to drum up interest in the revival of the long-lost England A team.

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It’s been eight years since the RFU last staged a fixture at this level, the pandemic playing spoilsport three years ago when test alerts forced the cancellation of a clash with Scotland A on the morning of the match in Leicester.

No game-cancelling drama is anticipated this time around at Mattioli Woods Welford Road when Portugal provide the opposition. The recent Rugby World Cup upstarts should be a popular draw for rugby fans keen on making a day of it next Sunday, catching England A live and then staying to watch on TV the France versus Italy round three Guinness Six Nations game from Lille.

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The more rejuvenating shots in the arm that English rugby gets, the better for the sport following a difficult few years where the stifling pandemic was followed by the sacking of Eddie Jones and the collapse of four professional clubs, three in the Gallagher Premiership.

Finally, though, there are some green shoots at the top end of the game. Under Steve Borthwick, England unexpectedly finished bronze medal winners at the recent Rugby World Cup and they are currently unbeaten in the Six Nations, the first time since 2019 they have started that tournament with two successive wins.

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The remaining clubs are also neat-stepping their way through a streamlined Premiership that is drawing in the crowds while plans for a reimagined Championship have a March 29 deadline before it goes to the RFU council for ratification.

All the while, the pathways are producing an abundance of talent that is enjoying the increased opportunity to showcase and harness what it has to offer, the renewal of the lapsed A team being its latest outlet.

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No wonder O’Shea, the 53-year-old director of English rugby performance since 2020, was all sweetness and light during his 30-minute media briefing. “I’m generally a pretty optimistic person anyway at the best of times,” quipped the former Ireland full-back and the ex-Italy head coach, teams where winning wasn’t a regular occurrence when he was involved.

“I know the work that has gone into the (RFU) pathway for the last few years to get what we believe are some pretty special players coming through. Looking at the Premiership, people are seeing the talent that is there, but we are a long way from optimising what we can be. That is exciting in itself because of the raw materials that we have to work with.

“It’s been tough the last few years. Covid was a hit to everybody in every union. I don’t think it could be described (in words) and we are all still feeling the after-effects of it financially and commercially. Then what has happened with the clubs, with Wasps, Worcester, Jersey and, for me, London Irish, really tough to take mentally for people within the system.

“That is bound to impact people, so what Steve did in a short sprint was incredible. Now we have got an opportunity to look at a cycle where you’re looking at the short term which is winning today but bringing through some of this young talent and really building a massively strong England team in the coming years. I’m more than optimistic.”

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O’Shea, as befits his overarching RFU job title, is expected to have his finger on the pulse in all areas and he wasn’t shy in dropping into the conversation little vignettes to highlight this. Take, for instance, a general question on the importance of reviving the men’s A team for the first time since it toured South Africa in 2016 and formulating plans for an annual three- to four-game programme.

“We have been pushing for this. Moving away, I’ve been down with the men’s U20s, been at both the U18s and 20s women pathways and I listened to the U20s leadership group talk and they were asked what is one of their biggest challenges. The reply was, ‘Well, we don’t have very much time together ever and we need more time’.

“When you’re at a club you know everything and you know everybody, but this is international rugby. We have always looked and said the bridge we have from 20s to England is big and there is a long tranche of time where players who have had time in the pathway – and we believe we have got a pretty special group of players coming through – spend so much time together from 16/17s to 20s and then they lose connection. They lose the ability to see and test themselves in a different environment.

“People are competitive animals, they want to play, they want to put their best foot forward for Steve and the senior coaches and say, ‘Pick me, I want to be next in’ but I want them to enjoy it. Enjoy the fact they are representing their country at home against a team that did brilliantly at the World Cup.

“It’s funny, pre-World Cup someone came to me and said, ‘Are we sure Portugal is the right type of opposition?’ And then post-World Cup someone said, ‘Are we sure England A team is good enough to play against them?’ They are going to be a real test for this group of players.

“It’s pretty big, to be honest,” he added, emphasising the importance of the A team renewal. “When we talk about pathways, between U20s and senior is something we have lacked for the continuity of those players that have come through a system internationally.

“That’s important, but it’s also a massive honour. I know everyone wants to play for England but if the pinnacle of your career is to play for England A, playing for the second team that your country has to offer, wow, that’s pretty unbelievable.

“I know everyone always wants to see the end goal but there are stepping stones and again, watching the U20s, you see the pride parents have to see their kids playing for England or dropping off into training and it’s the same with this.”

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O’Shea well understands how useful a tool the A team stepping stone is into Test rugby. He made numerous appearances himself way back with the Ireland second string to assist his 35-cap Test career. “I can tell you what success looks like as a player and a coach, it’s winning. For the programme, this is about making sure we have a continuous pipeline of players.

“We understand having a more qualified opinion on how players react to going into that (international) environment where they are not in their (club) parish; they are having to work with different players, different combinations.

“I played in a few A team matches myself back in the day. You know what the scoreboard is but for us, it is identifying and fast-tracking our thought process of who can step up. We have an idea but who has the ability of being able to step into an international environment and thrive? That is what we are keen to look out for in this and the coming matches.”

The end-of-season Churchill Cup was the big thing at international A level when the old Five/Six Nations A championship fell into abeyance. Might that return? “I don’t think it is a bridge too far. It would be amazing but conceptually in a different format given the player load. Could you have something more inventive around maybe four countries?

“Is it all about winning or lifting a trophy? Maybe not but that kind of two-week environment where people would be around and play two different teams internationally would be quite interesting. I wouldn’t rule it out but it’s nothing that is going to happen straight off. It’s a good idea, though.”

So what A team programme is on the immediate horizon and will there be more fixtures like next Sunday’s against tier-two opposition such as Portugal? “When we are doing this and looking at the A team matches in the future, we have to recognise that we have a duty as well to look at the development of other countries.

“Our U20s, when they were over there for their camp this year the Portuguese U20s came in and did some training. Yes, we will always organise some tier one games which we hopefully will announce soon in the A sphere but also we would like to ensure we are running these types of games as well because it’s a fabulous experience in itself.

“Maybe you would prefer to be travelling to Portugal than at home to leave a greater experience and we’d like that but that is not the case this time. But we’d like to be having these games as well just on that basis, the development of other countries. It’s our responsibility as much as it is just all the time playing tier one.

“We’re pretty much down the line and looking healthily to signing in due course an agreement to have close collaboration with another country in that respect at all levels, women’s, men’s U20s, As. Not so much at senior.

“I have really enjoyed the conversations I have had with Federico Sousa and Portugal. Getting the 20s together in Portugal was really valuable. Both got a lot out of it when they came together for that session. Yeah, we’d like to do a bit more.”

Next weekend’s England A outing will also be a reminder of the role the Championship plays in the RFU pathway, as well as the national leagues. An example? Just last week, Sale midfielder Rekeiti Ma’asi-White was a Paton Field try-scorer for Caldy in their tier-two clash with Bedford. “Talent ID, it’s not about spotting talent, it’s about giving talent an opportunity. Every part,” reckoned O’Shea.

“I was chatting to someone on the way over from the girls’ U18s and they were saying the one sure thing we know is that this weekend a kid is going to pull on a pair of boots in their local U8s, they will be a future England player. The whole of rugby creates an England player and the whole of rugby needs to be the best it possibly can be.

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“I was looking last week at our U20s against Wales and you looked at Asher (Opoku-Fordjour, the Sale tighthead who is loosehead for us. He has played Champions Cup, Premiership and England 20s. You looked then at someone like Josh Bellamy, who came off the bench. He was playing for Worthing and Richmond seconds, an U19s fly-half.

“And then you look at some of the other players in the squad whose competitive diets were completely different. Ben Redshaw playing up at Tynedale as well as for Newcastle in the EPCR and for England 20s. Whether it be the national league, you have a place in the ecosystem.

“What we need to make sure is we have got a system where it’s not by accident the players are getting their opportunity. For us, for several different reasons, rugby can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. We have to become a more sustainable, more commercialised model.

“We need a stronger and a growing second tier that not just can be a bridge but actually you can have people within it that are happy with where there are but also there are people with realistic aspirations to make that step up.

“There is a multitude of different things touched on there and hopefully after some pretty constructive meetings over the last week, we have got an alignment with the Championships clubs to get to the point where we have a second-tier that is reimagined, is more commercialised, is more vibrant and can act as that bridge. Playing opportunities for young players is everything. You don’t get better by not playing.”

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Jon 23 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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