Italy deserve to be in Six Nations, says former head coach O'Shea

Italy deserve to be in Six Nations, says ex-head coach Conor O’Shea who insists his former side are ‘infinitely better than Georgia’ in playing style… amid calls for Azzurri to be relegated after losing 28 games in a row

  • Conor O’Shea was head coach of the Azzurri from 2016 until the 2019 World Cup
  • Italy were thrashed 50-10 at home by France in their opening Six Nations fixture
  • Franco Smith has the task of ending their winless run in the championship
  • O’Shea is now the RFU’s director of performance after his time in charge of Italy

Conor O’Shea is part of the English rugby hierarchy these days, but he still cares passionately about Italy and mounts a stirring defence against calls for their relegation from the Six Nations.

The RFU’s director of performance was head coach of the Azzurri from March 2016 until the end of the last World Cup in 2019. He strove in vain to end their winless run in the championship, while overseeing the development of new talent.

Now under Franco Smith, the Italian struggle goes on.

Conor O’Shea was head coach of the Azzurri from 2016 until the end of the World Cup in 2019

The 50-10 defeat at home by France was their 28th Six Nations loss in a row. Their last win was at Murrayfield in 2015.

On Saturday, they will come to Twickenham to face a wounded England and will almost certainly suffer their 29th straight loss.

Former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton is among those who argue that Georgia deserve the chance to replace Italy. ‘Enough is enough,’ he said after the latest Italian slaughter.

But O’Shea offered an emphatic riposte, saying: ‘The easy thing is just to question what Italy are doing. When you look at their style of play, they are infinitely better than Georgia. They are trying to play a really good brand of rugby under Franco.

Italy were thrashed 50-10 at home by France on Sunday – their 28th Six Nations loss in a row

‘The questions will always be trotted out, “Should they be there? Should there be relegation?” My view is that they earned their place and my opinion will never change that our job is to promote the sport.

‘We want to have a strong Georgia, a strong Romania and strong Pacific Island teams. How do we grow the game?

‘The worst thing you can do now is contract — some decisions could make that happen.

‘We should all want teams like Georgia and Romania to grow, but let’s not kill off any other nation while we’re at it.’

O’Shea talks about Italy’s vast potential and the strides made at age-group level. He name-checks Benetton flanker Michele Lamaro as an emerging star and future Azzurri captain, plus the impact of Welsh-born Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney.

Franco Smith has been given the task of ending their winless run in the championship

Asked how the visitors would approach facing England, O’Shea said: ‘It is one hell of a tough gig for the Italians, but they will be thinking, “How do we upset the apple cart?”’

That is exactly what O’Shea’s side did four years ago, with their ‘fox’ tactic catching England cold. Italy did not contest the breakdown but exploited a loophole in the laws to block English passes, knowing that they were not offside.

Eventually, England unscrambled their brains and won but Eddie Jones argued it was against the spirit of the game. World Rugby swiftly closed the loophole.

Reflecting, O’Shea said: ‘It was a case of thinking, “How do you give a realistic hope to a group of people when they are going into the lions’ den?”

O’Shea’s Italy caught England cold in the first half four years ago with their ‘fox’ tactic 

‘By giving them a plan, we did that. At the start of the week, some players were questioning what we were doing. By the end, they all thought it was brilliant.

‘That’s what rugby is about — different ways of attacking and defending. There is no one way that’s the right way. You have to ask questions the whole time.’

Meanwhile, Peter O’Mahony has been handed a three-match ban, reduced from six, for the shoulder charge on Wales’s Tomas Francis which saw him sent off last Sunday. The Ireland flanker will miss the France, Italy and Scotland Six Nations games.

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