B&I Lions v All Blacks: A series to savour

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 13:51

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Conor O'Shea discusses his first campaign as Italian coach, the challenges he faces in the role, the Six Nations, as well as the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

Poor old Warren Gatland.

Nothing could be straightforward when it comes to the coach's selection of the British & Irish Lions.

Right up to the last game of the Six Nations, teams were going from heroes to zeros then back to heroes again.

With each performance some individuals were being written up or written off.

One thing is for sure, though, Warren will be going to New Zealand with one of the strongest, most competitive groups ever assembled and the series will be one to savour.

* The past two months have provided us with great moments, talking points like our defensive system against England in Round Three or the 20 minutes of additional time played in the Stade de France between Wales and France.

It has provided the performance of the Championship from my point of view - England against Scotland, where Eddie Jones's side was simply magnificent.

But for me, it has been, inevitably, a competition about learning and I hope that as we rebuild Italian rugby we can come to understand what needs to be done on and off the field to turn opportunity into end results.  

I'm acutely aware that some commentators are questioning our place in the Six Nations.

And I can tell you that I will do everything I can to rebuild Italian rugby so that it can challenge the best.

I can safely say that I have learnt more in the last seven weeks than I have done for a long time.

As the dust settles on my first Championship as a coach, I understand more the intensity of the competition and the raw emotion you have to deal with from one match to the next. It is a tournament like no other and momentum is key within it.

There were times in four of our five matches where we had the opportunity to gain momentum - and with it belief - but through not taking opportunities on offer or losing focus at key times we lost mini battles and thus that crucial momentum.

But there were encouraging signs for us. We led at half-time against Wales and England, were 16-11 down to France at half-time having dominated most of the first half and then had countless opportunities which were squandered against Scotland until the game went firmly their way.

To an outsider this may seem overly simplistic but when you get to understand the workings of the mind and how energy flows, our biggest challenge will be to ensure we learn that it is not just the 80 minutes: it is every minute within that match, it is every mini battle that determines the outcome and as a system in Italy we must make sure our players are ready for that - and we will.

I am more than confident having reviewed the games that with the right structures in place and a clearer understanding of how we perform at the highest level that we have begun the rebuilding process.

This will not be an overnight job. Having a quiet word with Vern Cotter after the game against Scotland, he reminded me that he was whitewashed two years ago in his first Championship and look at them this year (fourth but with three wins). In fact, in 2015 after their whitewash, Scotland nearly got to the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup.

The margins in sport are always small.

The big difference for Scotland was that in Glasgow Warriors they had a team in the PRO12 which was bubbling with confidence, a process started by Sean Lineen and taken on by Gregor Townsend.

We are starting that process now by making changes within Italian Rugby. I do know, however, that in the short-term I will be judged on results but we all know that in this game we'll have good days in the short-term too if we learn how to manage momentum.

As for the overall Championship, the final predictions in terms of standing were as many would have imagined, but how we got there may not be quite so straightforward.

Scotland were magnificent in their first outing against Ireland and, from the outset, it proved a very hard competition to predict.

Ireland were always going to struggle away in Wales on a Friday night in Round 4 and then the inexorable march of England to a second Grand Slam was always going to be a tough ask - playing Ireland on the rebound on St Patrick's Day weekend in Dublin on the final Saturday.

In the end, it's all about being prepared, so that whatever comes your way you can manage it.

The QBE Rugby Predictor called it right for England to win the Six Nations but the predictions weren't right for all games, which meant that those who were expected to lose knew the risks they had to manage and were able to turn it around. Just like you do in all aspects of life, be it sport, business or personally.

This column by Conor O'Shea was brought to you by QBE.