ITALY coach Conor O’Shea has watched Scotland’s progress with a mixture of envy and admiration in recent seasons, and believes that Gregor Townsend’s team are the perfect example for his own side to follow.
The Italians come to Murrayfield on Saturday having lost their last 17 games in the Six Nations Championship, their last victory having been at the same venue back in 2015. That bald statistic may not augur well for this campaign, but O’Shea has been encouraged by the form of Benetton and to a lesser extent Zebre this season. O’Shea is confident that, thanks in part to that improvement at PRO14 level, his own squad are beginning to find the consistency they need to do their ability justice. That is another way in which Italian rugby is running on the same track as the game in this country, he believes.
“They’re a great example to everybody of what you can do when you get your structures right,” he said of Scotland. “And it’s not something that happened overnight. I think it’s a perfect, perfect demonstration to Italian rugby what can be achieved with patience and perseverance. That’s it in a nutshell.
“Glasgow and Edinburgh have evolved. Glasgow got ahead of Edinburgh and now it’s Edinburgh ahead of Glasgow. They’re pushing each other. When you get depth and competition you get confidence and you get better players, and the people coming in believe they’re coming into a system that is succeeding.
“There’s no magic wand in life. It’s hard work. I’ve loved seeing it evolve.
“I remember, God, years ago, being at Quins when Gregor took the Glasgow job. We played a pre-season friendly. He took over from Sean Lineen and Sean went into a different role. I think it’s a great example to everyone who wants their nation to make the most of what it is.
“With all the work we’re doing in Italian rugby, we will get there. But we know this Six Nations will be the most competitive so far. We have all the stats and the science, which we never had before, which allows us to measure and challenge the players.”
Having succeeded Jacques Brunel in the summer of 2016, O’Shea has so far known only defeat in the Championship, with his team’s best result under him to date having been the losing bonus point they picked up in their 29-27 loss to Scotland in Rome last year. But although the results in the tournament have yet to pick up, the former Ireland full-back has seen his team claim some impressive wins in other Tests, and certainly does not feel burdened by recent history.
“This is a different world to three years ago,” he insisted. “This is a different Scotland group. But it’s also a different Italian group, and hopefully we have a different mentality. We talk about our plan, our structures, about where the game is going, our young players, the two franchises . . . . but this is about us playing Scotland.
“People talk to me about the World Cup. We have plans in place, but all we care about is Scotland and we’re not looking past that. There are other teams looking at Grand Slams and Triple Crowns, but we want to deliver a performance that we’re proud of for our supporters and ourselves.
“We’ve had a level of intensity in a number of games over the past few months. We’ve beaten Fiji, Japan, Georgia in the last 18 months. We haven’t beaten teams at the highest level. We’ve had some good performances and some difficult days. Our big step is to take a big scalp and get back up to that top table. That’s what everyone is working for.
“Against Scotland we know that if we get our performance levels right then we can be very competitive. Look at the Six Nations game last year – that was a great game of rugby and it wasn’t a fluke.
“We did it in the second Test against Japan. We lost against Australia, but we played some good rugby. We know that if we don’t deliver a performance then we will pay at this level. Our biggest task is to create a habit of the level of intensity of our performance. We understand that and we’re training for that.
“There are people missing, like every team has. But we’re looking forward to going over to Scotland and delivering a competitive performance. Hopefully, the bounce of the ball or a refereeing decision will give us momentum. Things can happen, but we realise the scale of the challenge.”