Conor O’Shea is braced for the “usual tripe” in the build up to Italy’s clash with Georgia in Florence next month which is certain to revive the debate over introducing relegation in the Six Nations championship.
Georgia have replaced Romania as the obvious contenders to push for a place in the Six Nations and Italy’s right to be part of Europe’s elite has been undermined by 13 Wooden Spoons for finishing last since joining the tournament in 2000.
O’Shea saw his men battle back to square the test series 1-1 in Japan in June and with Benetton and Zebre making more of an impact in the Pro14 this season along with Italy’s age group teams impressing, there is much needed confidence heading into the Autumn tests against Ireland in Chicago (Nov 3), Georgia (Nov 10), Australia in Padua (Nov 17) and New Zealand in Rome (Nov 24).
While O’Shea’s focus is on the opening international with Ireland, he acknowledges the clash with Georgia is going to trigger more debate and he said: “ I know that the usual tripe will be trotted out, but Italy has earned every single right to be part of the Six Nations. We know people will be expressing opinions and that is an easy stick to beat us with and always will be. We are not going to change that except through our performances. Japan is a tough place to go and win and we did that in the second test in June and no one is going to mention that a week after our victory Japan beat Georgia 28-0.
“There are lazy people who say we are a set piece orientated side and that we can last 60 minutes blah, blah blah. That’s rubbish. I am really positive because we have some seriously good players and are a team that can score tries. We have game breakers and will play an ambitious style of rugby thanks to improved fitness.
“ Everyone on the outside knows the answers because they don’t have any accountability. If we weren’t making changes and not seeing young players coming through then it would be hard to stay positive but we are making progress. Of course it’s not easy and it never was going to be a case of waving a magic wand. Last year Italy U17s beat France the U18’s defeated England and U20’s to go into the top eight.
“Those players are winning matches and coming into a system they believe is changing. At international level there is no doubt we are becoming more competitive and we have to make the big moments count in matches and get the wins. We lost the first test in Japan in June and did brilliantly to win the second and other than against Ireland, we were competitive in last season’s Six Nations.”
With veteran captain Sergio Parisse, who has won 134 caps, having undergone surgery in the summer to ensure he can still be a force in what will be his final 12 months as a player, focus is turning to players such as Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri who could fill the looming void. O’Shea believes 35-year-old Parisse will continue to be a key player through to the 2019 World Cup in Japan and added: “ As this team grows together the age profile shows this is just the start of a cycle rather than the end of the era involving senior players like Sergio. This will be a group that sticks together for a long time and will become a very good side which is all we wanted to achieve. Jake Polledri was someone I watched while he was at Hartpury College and it was a case of could he transfer that unique ability to higher levels and he has. He was brought thoroughly slowly and did so well in the second test in Japan.
“There is no doubt that what has been put in place is making a difference not only with Zebre and Benetton, but just look at the results from our U20’s. We would never say we are World beaters but we are putting together a functional and competitive system. Look, we are nowhere near where we could be but we have made significant changes and now real quality players are coming through and that is a massive credit to the coaching teams at the two Pro 14 clubs. The style of rugby and excitement being generated means I am pretty comfortable about where we are going.”