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Azzurri appointment is no joke for departing Harlequins director O’Shea

Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | Updated April 26, 2016

There is something oddly poetic about Italy appointing Harlequins director of rugby Conor O’Shea as their next national coach.

Anyone who has ever been to a masquerade ball or enjoyed Commedia dell’arte at the theatre will know Harlequin’s history as a stock character of such ceremony and stage productions.

A figure of fun and cliche treading the boards in that crucible of culture that is Italy he may be, but there is nothing akin to comedy about O’Shea taking over the Azzurri.

Challenge Cup could be ‘Quins final flourish

Prior to taking up this post, however, there may yet be one final trick up his sleeve at Harlequins, as Coral make them 11/8 to win the European Rugby Challenge Cup. O’Shea has steered them to this prize before in 2010/11, albeit when it went by another name.

Rugby Union - Amlin Challenge Cup - Final - Harlequins v Stade Francais Paris - Cardiff City Stadium

Scoring an unequalled 31 tries during the pool stage of that competition this term, O’Shea then saw his Harlequins came through a quarter-final derby clash with former club London Irish, courtesy of England scrum half Danny Care’s hat-trick.

Grenoble then got smashed 30-6 in the semis by ‘Quins, who move on to a Challenge Cup final in Lyon on May 13th against another French Top 14 team in Montpellier. Delivering a trophy to Twickenham Stoop would make for a fine departing gift from O’Shea.

There’s now just two games of the regular Aviva Premiership season to go and, while it is too late for Harlequins to make up the nine-point gap on the top four and play-off places, O’Shea can still return them to elite European club rugby with a Champions Cup entry for his successor.

Ranking restoration an immediate Italian priority

Ireland v Italy - 2016 RBS Six Nations - Aviva Stadium

Moving on to the Azzurri may well be accompanied by much fanfare in Britain, but Italy are ranked lower than when Jacques Brunel took over following the 2011 Rugby World Cup, because of a winless 2016 Six Nations campaign.

Now 14th in the world below the likes of Georgia and Tonga, Azzurri fortunes have fluttered between ninth and 15th throughout the outgoing Frenchman’s tenure. Towards the higher end of that band is a realistic reflection of their status.

“I am honoured, humbled and excited that I will be working with everyone in Italian Rugby to ensure they can achieve on the undoubted potential they have as a rugby nation,” said O’Shea upon his appointment being confirmed, and already his backroom team is taking shape.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - England Captain's Run - Pool A - England v Uruguay - City Of Manchester Stadium

Former England captain and attacking coach Mike Catt will assist the Irishman in Italy, taking up the same role as he had for the Red Rose under Stuart Lancaster. Catt has much to prove after being associated with the recent Rugby World Cup failure.

England were the first host nation to bow out at the pool stage last autumn, and their attack lacked the teeth to match Wales’ playing for penalties and an awesome Australian performance put in by Bernard Foley.

Momentum may be difficult to gather

A winning feeling is familiar to O’Shea, but the Azzurri only achieve these intermittently based on the evidence presented below.

Ireland v Italy - 2016 RBS Six Nations - Aviva Stadium

From 50 Tests in charge, Brunel engineered just 11 victories, notably recording a fourth place finish in the 2013 Six Nations thanks to wins over France and O’Shea’s native Ireland.

Just five victories in 34 for Italy since, however, leave the new boss needing to squeeze a lot more out of his players when they face elite opposition.

Tier 2 quartet Fiji, Samoa, Canada and Romania account for 80 per cent of those Azzurri delights, but it is not all doom and gloom for O’Shea.

Canna among those to give encouragement

Looking at the recent Six Nations, the final standings alone do not tell the whole story. Italy gave an excellent account of themselves in the competition opener in Paris, losing by the grace of a 54m penalty kick going over the posts from Les Bleus fly half Jules Plisson.

Opposite number Carlo Canna was outstanding for the Azzurri, as highlights show above, putting 13 of their 21 points on the board in the Stade de France by scoring in every manner possible.

His subsequent injury may just be coincidental to the downturn in Italian form, but he gave them plenty of belief before his campaign was curtailed during that second-half collapse to England.

Whatever half back pairing O’Shea is thinking of using with the Azzurri touring the Americas this summer, then cunning kicker Canna must be part of it if fit.

Backs show signs of encouragement

The same can be said of Exeter Chiefs centre Michele Campagnaro and emerging full back David Odiete. Like Canna, both are just 23, and have big international futures ahead of them if building on under the radar performances during the Six Nations.

Rugby RBS 6 Nations - France vs Italy

Italy skipper Sergio Parisse remains a class act and organiser of the forwards from between the flankers at number eight, but he will have turned 36 on the eve of the next Rugby World Cup in Japan.

O’Shea must assess the long-term benefits and if indeed there is any merit in selecting veteran prop Martin Castrogiovanni (34) and back row operator Alessandro Zanni (32 like Parisse). There is more perhaps to ponder among the Azzurri forwards, then.

Summer should be more fruitful than Autumn

Whoever he takes on tour, O’Shea will be expected – away to Argentina apart – to record convincing results against the USA and Canada. Wins this summer should boost Italy’s ranking back to the median mark of 11th or 12th.

From there he has a platform to try and push the Azzurri back into the top 10, which is the challenge O’Shea and his considerable credentials must prove up to if his time in charge is to be considered successful.

Harlequins v Saracens - Aviva Premiership - Twickenham Stoop

Before a maiden Six Nations campaign in 2017, O’Shea will face Autumn Internationals against New Zealand and South Africa, which can to all intents and purposes be written off, before a much more winnable game to end this year against Tonga.

Long-term goal?

The IRFU (Irish Rugby Football Union and governing body of the sport in the Emerald Isle) will be watching how O’Shea gets on closely, as current head coach Joe Schmidt will at some stage need to be replaced.

It is far too early to earmark or judge O’Shea as Ireland’s boss of tomorrow, but few if any of his compatriots will be able to boast experience of coaching a top tier international side.

Guiding Harlequins to past trophies, including the Anglo-Welsh Cup and Premiership itself, and potentially one more European Challenge Cup, can leave rugby punters content to look closely at how O’Shea makes the leap with Italy.

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