It’s 1994 and Ireland head to London on Valentine’s weekend for their now annual demolition at the hands of the aul’enemy. Ireland hadn’t beaten England in Twickenham since 1982, and even then wins were few and far between. True, Ireland had beaten England the year previously at Landsdowne Road, but this England team had just dispensed with the All Blacks in the autumn, and were looked upon as the favourites for that year’s championship and the World Cup the following year.
What followed that afternoon was one of Irish rugby’s most gutsy performances, capped by a fine try and scintillating performance by (English born but Irish qualified) winger Simon Geoghegan. Making one of his first appearances that day was a young full back from Terenure, and the son of an All-Ireland football winner from Kerry, Conor O’Shea. Ireland were presented with the Millennium Trophy for winning the match. It would be the only trophy O’Shea would get over the course of his 6 years and 35 caps for Ireland. The hope tapped by a win in Twickenham proved to be a false dawn, as the team struggled to adapt to the introduction of professionalism in 1995. While the fortunes of the Irish team continued to fade, for O’Shea it was the beginning of a very bright future.
O’Shea burst on to the Irish domestic scene after a string of good performances at underage and club level. It was during one underage tour that O’Shea got the nickname Caesar – a nickname quite apt for someone that would go on to be head coach of Italy’s rugby team.
O’Shea seized upon the opportunities that professionalism brought to rugby, and promptly upped sticks to move from suburban Dublin to London Irish in 1995 after being part of the Irish squad at the Rugby World Cup in South Africa. The move meant he was excluded from the Irish team for 1996, but his form soon meant we couldn’t be excluded any longer. In his first season in London he helped them win promotion to the top division of English Rugby. London Irish, plucky underdogs, continued to punch above their weight and improve season by season, and by 1997 O’Shea was back in the Irish squad and would make the full back spot his own.
O’Shea’s exploits were rewarded in 1999 as he won the Players’ Player of the Season Award, after captaining the side on great runs in both domestic and European competitions. However on the international front O’Shea’s involvement would continue to bring disappointment and heartbreak, with O’Shea being part of the Irish team to lose in the quarter-final playoff at the 1999 Rugby World Cup.
By 2000 and at the peak of his powers, the sporting gods would deal him the cruelest of blows. An ankle injury sustained against Gloucester in November would instantly end his playing career, just as both London Irish and Ireland were beginning to make great strides and improvements.
However cruel a blow it was, it wouldn’t be the end of O’Shea’s involvement in senior rugby. While rugby had gone professional, it still retained close connections to pursuing other professional careers. One needs only to check O’Shea’s LinkedIn profile to see that even while playing he was planning for when he hung up his boots. Solid and safe degrees in Commerce and Legal Studies while playing in Ireland, he switched tact when he moved to London and obtained a Masters in Sports Science, a canny and shrewd piece of foresight that accurately predicted the direction professional rugby would take.
In 2001 O’Shea began his coaching career with London Irish, quickly climbing the ladder to become director of rugby by 2002. After winning the inaugural Angle-Welsh competition in 2002, O’Shea’s next position would see him move to the very heart of English rugby, working as the RFU’s Director of Regional Academies and overseeing the development of England’s future stars. many of whom play today.
In 2007 and with England about to play at Croke Park, it was to O’Shea that RFU turned to to address the English players of the significance of the match they were about to take part in.
O’Shea returned to full-time coaching with Harlequins in 2010 and led the team to three titles (European Challenge Cup 2011, Premiership title in 2012 and Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2013) before deciding last summer to make the step up to international rugby by becoming Italy’s head coach.
The journey so far as been an exciting rollercoaster ride, not too dissimilar to his time playing for Ireland. The historic victory over South Africa last November, Italy’s first ever win over the southern hemisphere powerhouse, was sandwiched between a heavy loss to New Zealand, followed by a surprise defeat to lowly Tonga.
While O’Shea gets to work to make Italy more consistent, he can do so while living in one of the most desired locations of all of Europe – Lake Garda. That’s not a bad place to be after a life spent working abroad for the last 22 years. We hope it comforts him after Ireland win today!
EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum is an interactive experience that brings the story of this island’s migration history to life. Featuring over 320 people and countless stories from the 6th century to the present day, EPIC’s 20 themed galleries bring visitors on a spectacular journey through some of the 10 million people to have left these shores. Open daily in The chq Building from 10am, last entry 5pm. Book tickets here.