Country Limerick born, Conor O’Shea won the inter-provincial championship in Ireland with Leinster before joining London Irish in 1995. He was an exciting full-back, winning the Zurich Players’ Player of the Season Award in 1999 and clocking up 35 international caps for Ireland and scoring six tries, before a serious ankle injury brought his player career to an abrupt end.
He joined the London Irish coaching staff, progressing quickly up the ranks to Director of Rugby, and was awarded the Rugby Director of the Season Award jointly with Brendan Venter in 2002 after winning the LV= (formerly Powergen) Cup. After a stint as Director of Regional Academies at the RFU, he moved back into coaching at Harlequins, leading the side to the Premiership title in 2012.
O’Shea took some time out at the launch of the new Aviva Premiership fixture list to have a chinwag with Take The Three…
Take The Three: Hi Conor, how did Chris Robshaw take the news about not making the Lions squad?
Conor O’Shea: His reaction to the Lions disappointment was how I would have expected Chris to react. Much like his 2011 World Cup disappointment. He’s a competitor. He is so competitive and wants to be as good as he can be. He will drive everything in the club and he’ll be driven by a bit of hurt and anger but sometimes a bit of disappointment helps rather than everything going sweetly all the time.
TTT: Were you disappointed for him?
COS: I was because he stuck his head above the parapet so many times, was outstanding so many times, captained England to beat the All Blacks, was MOTM in two games in the 6 Nations and arguably England’s best player against Wales and played in big games every single week for Harlequins. Whereas some people fly under the radar, doing bugger all, and get picked not on form.
Even though I was incredibly disappointed, selection is subjective. We always knew some would get picked and others wouldn’t. In the long term for us it will probably end up being a real benefit.
TTT: And what about Chris and Danny Care missing out on the England tour to Argentina too?
COS: Having missed out on the Premiership semi-final because of an ankle injury picked up against Worcester Robbo got himself fit in time to be called on if needed. But sometimes you have to look after a player’s best interests because anyone would want to play for and captain their country. Myself and Stuart [Lancaster] talked about the various players that were in and around the squad and agreed what was best.
Even though as an individual you were disappointed for them, in the long term both for England and for Quins it could be a blessing because they’re refreshed. The players have had six weeks off, because we finished two weeks earlier than we wanted to, and it’s a long, long year.
TTT: How has Chris managed the process of moving on?
COS: He’s a rugby player and it’s done; the Lions are now history. It’s about the next thing in sport and the Lions will be irrelevant if England win the World Cup in 2015. For them there can be no greater achievement than to win the WC in their own country and that has to be there focus. The big thing for any rugby international is their home World Cup, a bit like the Olympics was for every home athlete.
TTT: Were the boys frustrated about kicking their heels in London?
COS: I can tell you they didn’t kick their heels in London very long. [For Chris] it was the Caribbean and Thailand! He played a bit of golf – badly! – and is looking forward to the season.
TTT: So he’s feeling refreshed?
COS: If you look at him now compared to how he finished last season in terms of freshness, of course he’s refreshed. When was the last time he had a six week break? Years.
TTT: Bearing that schedule in mind are we asking too much of some of our top players?
COS: No because they’ll be looked after. In a game like rugby, trauma injuries are a big problem but if you look after players off the pitch then with a bit of luck you don’t suffer those bad injuries, touch wood. If you take the case of Robbo, we didn’t want him playing too much and last year, from Jan 18th until May, he didn’t play for Quins.
But if you look at the fixture schedule and the pressure these guys have if they’re playing for the next few years, there’s a three-Test series at the end of this season and a World Cup at the end of the season after. Hopefully they can keep their form and their fitness.
TTT: Surely it’s the mental pressures as much as anything?
COS: It’s the mental and physical toll that international rugby takes and even as a club we had more calls last season. We learnt plenty of lessons and hopefully we can manage the squad the way it should be. Some of our young players are not so young anymore and they need to play more.
TTT: How are the younger players in the squad developing?
COS: The foundations that Dean Richards laid were incredible but we still have to make sure we work hard to stay at the top of the table. I’m very lucky to have been working with an unbelievable group of players and there’s a massive amount of competition from some of our young guys coming through the Academy and looking to make that next step, so I’d like to think we can only get better.
Rugby is getting more and more physical, even the junior guys. The England U20s have just won the World Cup and if you look at some of the rugby that was played in that, these guys are ready to step up to senior level and they’ll be able to make an impact. They’re getting faster and more powerful.
TTT: So, will players like Chris miss more games this season to give some of the younger guys that chance?
COS: Not miss more but you have to look at other players in the squad. We’ve got Chris, Luke Wallace, Nick Easter, Tom Guest, Maurie Fa’asavalu, Joe Trayfoot and Jack Clifford, it’s a good group of players, and Karl Dickson’s there as well as Danny Care. So it’s not about missing games but letting the guys who are good enough to play actually play.
It’s a tough Premiership and every single game you have to put your best side out but your best side doesn’t always necessarily mean your number one player like Danny or Robbo. We make sure that we utilise our squad and that’s why winning the LV= Cup last year was a huge thing for us because it was a group of young players who want to push on. Sixteen of them were under 23 so they’ll want to put pressure on the older members of the squad.
TTT: Is the squad big enough to cope with the pressures of the season?
COS: We’ll see! We have to manage them properly. The salary cap is what it is; you can’t go outside it and there’s competition for players in the marketplace.
TTT: What’s the focus ahead of the new season?
COS: All we’ll be focusing on is [the first game against] Wasps. If we think past that game we’ll come a cropper. We want to start well and see how we go. [Last year] I think we were 40 points to 13 down in that game with 25 minutes to go and I don’t know how we won it but we did.
If you don’t have the desire, the will or the work rate you’re not going to get there, so the players have to have that. You can’t be thinking too far ahead and the Wasps game is what we care about at the moment.
At the end we want to be in that top four and it’s about finding form at the back end of the season.
TTT: Is there any other team that can break into the top four?
COS: Any of them, absolutely. If you get a good start to the season, you never know what could happen.
TTT: What about [newly promoted] Newcastle? What are your experiences of playing them in the past?
COS: The last time we played Newcastle in the Premiership, I remember the game vividly. It was 9-9. Nick Evans kicked in the last second of the game and that was the year Newcastle got relegated. It is a heck of a hard place to go. It’ll be even harder with Dean Richards at the helm.
TTT: And with plans up in the air from a European perspective how are you planning for that?
COS: We’ll play in whatever competition we’re put in! We want to finish as high up the league as we possibly can, we want to win things, we want to be ambitious. But we’ll start off at square one with the first game of the season. You can’t look past that.
In terms of European competitions, there’ll be Premiership, LV Cup and a European competition of some sort and we’ll play whatever’s put in front of us. We’ll go out and play that first game. Yes we’ll plan things in terms of our squad make-up, etc, but in terms of planning for your role in the sport, you look after the next game.
The best team will win the domestic league and then you want to qualify for Europe and you want to go as far as you can with that and that’s all we need to know if we’re being brutally honest. At the moment the ERC is planning for a European Cup next year and everyone is hoping that there will be a resolution and if there’s not we’ll be playing in a big competition somewhere.
TTT: And lastly a note about BT Sport, who have the Premiership broadcasting rights. What are your thoughts on the new venture?
COS: The good thing is the guys that are involved from BT Sport, their knowledge of the game is huge. I think we have duty to know the game as a whole group and get the right message across.