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EXCLUSIVE: Azzuri 'nowhere near' England or Ireland - O'Shea gives brutal assessment

By Chris Jones
Italy head coach Conor O’Shea and captain Sergio Parisse

Conor O’Shea accepts his Italy team will need England to suffer a serious drop in performance to give the Azzuri any chance of pulling off a shock win against the reigning champions when the Six Nations kicks off in Rome on February 4.

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The Italians ended a series of nine losses by winning their opening November Test against Fiji 19-10 in Sicily, however, defeats by Argentina(31-15) and South Africa(35-6) mean the Azzuri are once again cast in the role of also-rans in the Six Nations.

At least O’Shea can take comfort in the knowledge his team are already qualified for the 2019 World Cup in Japan where they are the same pool as the All Blacks and Springboks and while that is a daunting group, he is not under the kind of pressure that saw Italian football manager Gian Piero Ventura recently sacked for failing to reach the World Cup in Russia.

O’Shea started his Italian job in the summer of 2016 and remains remarkably upbeat despite only boasting a record of four wins from 17 games in charge. The former Ireland fullback knows he will be judged by the wider rugby community on those results, but given the weaknesses, he is addressing in the sport in Italy, he insists important steps have been taken towards a brighter and more successful future.

Of course, the arrival of England, chasing a third successive Six Nations title, is a potentially damaging opener and with Ireland at home followed by France away, the headlines could make for painful reading.

The good news for Italy is that their head coach is up for the fight and his mixture of unrelenting enthusiasm and realism is refreshing. O’Shea’s Italy team totally flummoxed England at Twickenham last year by refusing to create a ruck or an offside line and Eddie Jones was far from impressed. Laws have been changed since that remarkable match and O’Shea said: “I have been around long enough to know that people will comment on our loss to South Africa without even looking at the match and what happened in the game. We are a lot better a year on as a rugby team but like last year, England will be massive favourites and the changes World Rugby made means we can’t cause the same problems as we did for them at Twickenham!

“Do we need England to under-perform and us to perform at our very best in Rome? Yes. The same is true against Ireland and our aim in the coming years is to get back into the World’s top 10( they are 14th).

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“We are fitter as an international squad but still nowhere near the level to play against England and Ireland. For 20 years Italy drifted and now we are making the changes to be better while working within our means. I would feel really down if I didn’t see the progress that is being made around the country.

“It is a long old slog we have ahead of us but we will get there and I am pretty positive – as I always am – because we do have good young players coming through. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it was never going to be easy but there are significant strides being made and we are where Scotland were five or six years ago

“The quality of the work done by Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby, and more generally at all levels of Italian rugby, is starting to have a real impact on the quality and quantity of players at our disposition. We are growing together with the franchises and they are more competitive and with Zebre now controlled by the Union then we will work to get that squad deeper in the coming seasons. Benetton are in a very good place and as they get stronger with Academies being put in place, then important strides are being made.”

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Shaylen 7 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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