When London Irish finished second from bottom of the Premiership in 1998 even their staunchest fan would have stared blankly if you had suggested the team featured four players who would become key figures in the future of the English professional game.
However, that is exactly what has transpired, with Conor O’Shea, captain of the team that season, now taking the quartet’s influence onto the test stage as Italy’s new head coach after winning the Aviva Premiership title with Harlequins.
While O’Shea’s rise to become Italy coach has been remarkable, he could be merely the first of that London Irish back-line quartet to take their coaching skills into the international arena. In 1998 the Irish featured No10 David Humphreys, the Gloucester director of rugby, No12 Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, No13 Brendan Venter, former Saracens director of rugby and No15 O’Shea.
It was a unique collection of rugby talent, men who have shaped the Premiership landscape and the question is; Who will follow O’Shea’s lead?
There continues to be speculation over just how long Joe Schmidt will remain as Ireland coach before opting to return to New Zealand, initially at Super rugby level before becoming an All Black coaching option, and when that decision is made, the names of O’Shea, McCall and Humphreys will naturally enter the debate.
Venter has coached the South African U20 team and while his focus is on his GP practise in the Western Cape, he remains an option for the senior Springboks in years to come. While, his maverick personality polaries opinion at home and abroad, his influence in the game is as relevant as ever.
McCall was the man chosen by Venter to take over from him as Sarries director of rugby in 2010, and with the club finishing last season with back-to-back Aviva Premiership titles and an outstanding European Champions Cup and league double, their profile is at an all-time high in the sport. Naturally, that focusses attention on McCall a man who has the quietest voice in World rugby which, according to his former Irish team mates, is in stark contrast to the constant noise that boomed from him on the pitch.
“ Mark quiet ? Absolutely not:”said Humphreys.” Mark was very demanding on the pitch at No12: Brendan being , well, Brendan at No13, totally driven and inspirational and Conor, the captain, at full back. Surviving all those voices and personalities was a true test! Did they listen to me? I would like to think they did, but the reality is they probably didn’t.”
Would McCall handle the intense scrutiny that a high profile international coaching job would entail? “Mark doesn’t crave the limelight:”explained Venter.” He loves coaching and it has taken him a long time to build what has been achieved at Sarries and why would he leave something so exciting? It is not how Mark functions.
“I often joked with Mark about the different styles of leadership at Sarries. Myself and Andy Farrell were the extrovert leaders, jumping up and down shouting while he was quiet. Being an introvert leader is sometimes better because you hear other people’s opinions. The dominant leader doesn’t always hear other views.
“ I went back to Sarries on one occasion from South Africa with someone who sat in on the coaches’ meeting and hadn’t met Mark before . He couldn’t believe how well Mark managed the group of coaches by listening to everyone and then summarised it all up at the end. My friend said” Wow, that is some of the best leadership I have ever seen.”
McCall’s outstanding success since taking over at Sarries makes him the obvious next candidate to make the step up to international rugby. McCall, as befits his personality, is uncomfortable dealing with “what ifs”, preferring the certainty of the here and now.
McCall said:”I don’t look further than Sarries. I have been involved in coaching the longest having started in 1999 with Ulster and international involvement is not something I have an ambition to do. You never say never, but I enjoy the day to day coaching and two weeks after the end of the season, I was starting to get bored already! The huge gaps between international games may be too much.
“ If anybody can make a difference at that level then it is Conor and I actually prefer it with him now coaching Italy. It is very difficult coming up against Conor and David in the Premiership because we are close and have always supported each other.”
O’Shea believes the rough times McCall dealt with while head coach at Ulster (2004-07) made him more wary of the media and that has shaped his current public persona. “Mark – or Small as we call him – was one of the biggest talkers on the pitch because he wanted everything to be right. That’s why I expected him to go into coaching and the best 12’s are the best talkers. The way he was treated at Ulster was pretty shambolic.
“ It was great to be able to talk to Humph about shared experiences in the Premiership just like we used to do as we pondered the Daily Mail crossword in a coffee shop in Hampton Hill while we were players. This is the special bond the four of us have got – we can speak to very openly and know confidences won’t be betrayed.”
McCall insists he is loud in the coaching box, but tends to tone it down when it comes to dealing with the players.”What you see is not sometimes what you get and the other Sarries coaches will tell you that , from time to time, I get het up. As long as the players see the calm and reflective side – that is what’s important.
“ I thought that Conor would be involved in rugby and David and I expected we would go back to law. David was probably the most talented of us and the game came very easy to him and it is rugby’s gain that he stayed involved. Brendan has three passions; family; his medical career and rugby and he needs that rugby fix.”
Venter has very happy memories of his time at Irish and particularly the end to that difficult season in 1998.“ We were in a relegation battle but it was one of the most enjoyable three months of my life. We fought our way out of that situation and played brilliantly.
“What happened then is that I started to enjoy the Irish way of doing things and what I mean by that is Irish people are unbelievably easy going, friendly and sociable but they are also incredibly competitive. It is rare you get a blend like that in a nationality. So, I was spending time with these lovely people; Mark, Conor and David but when it comes to any kind of sport – table tennis, touch rugby or football- this other side comes out. This competitive nature and that is why I liked working with them.”
Humphreys saw that competitive nature manifest itself in training and after watching Venter and McCall lock horns, the No10 decided to leave the extra tackling to his mid-field guys. “They were knocking lumps out of each other;” remembers Humphreys , who expected to follow a career as a solicitor before the rugby bug bit.
“All four of us were qualified to do other things away from rugby and that is one of the big challenges facing the game today – how we provide our players with the ability to have a life after professional rugby.
“ I came straight to Irish from University and shared a house for two years with club captain Conor for my sins.
“If you have asked me all those years ago I would have said Mark and Conor would have stayed involved in the game. Because Brendan was so committed to his medical career, I wouldn’t have anticipated him spending so much time in rugby. I honestly didn’t have any ambition back then to be in professional rugby and anticipated it was merely a short break before going into the real world as a solicitor.
“The other three have won the Premiership title and they have set the bar very high. I have a huge job at Gloucester and in sport you can never plan too far ahead because things can change so quickly. I have no aspiration to move on. Conor did an outstanding job at Quins and now he has a huge challenge with Italy and he is the right man for that job. It will be different from the stresses and strains you face every week with club rugby, but the pressure and expectation around the international game is increased ten-fold.”
O’Shea begs to differ offering this view the Gloucester supremo:” The pressure is never on Humph –he will always come up smelling of roses!”
Learning Italian is just one of the demands of the new job O’Shea is embracing with Italy and after a challenging start with a tour of Argentina, he can now prepare for a first Six Nations championship campaign.
As the first of the four to reach test level as a coach, does O’Shea believe the others will follow his path? O’Shea said:” It is a choice that you make if the opportunity is there. Are they good enough? Of course they are, but it has to be the right thing for you and your family. “
Chris Jones in Rugby World magazine