Italian Rugby is a relatively small world by professional rugby standards. There are just two full-time professional clubs in Benetton Treviso and Zebre, 54 professional players playing in Italy, and just seven overseas based players in the Italian national team.
Among the players and coaches that ply their trade domestically, there are seven South Africans, six New Zealanders and three Argentinians. The Irish contingent? two – Ian McKinley and Conor O’Shea.
The pair are among the most unlikely duo in professional rugby and their paths were never meant to cross. McKinley was a promising academy player at Leinster who had his professional career derailed by a gruesome eye injury in 2010, while O’Shea was one of the most respected rugby minds in Europe, having guided Harlequins to an Aviva Pemiership title, two Challenge Cup finals and an Anglo-Welsh Cup win in six seasons at the Stoop.
Both were, and potentially still are, destined for much bigger and better things, but for the moment they’re the only Irishmen plying their trade in Italian Ruby; McKinley as a playmaking fly-half with Treviso, O’Shea as the Head Coach of the Italian national team.
Before they headed to Italy the only connection the two shared was that they were both former Leinster players, however now, they see each other twice a week as O’Shea splits his time between Treviso and Zebre training sessions.
The ‘hands-on’ approach adopted by O’Shea is warmly welcomed by McKinley who thinks that his compatriot is destined to achieve great success with Italy.
“In comparison to maybe some of our previous coaches he’s very hands on,” McKinley told Action Replay Extra Time earlier this month.
“In terms of his presence at training, both for Zebre and Treviso, he certainly brings a huge amount of calmness.
“I have never been under one of his teams, so I can’t talk about him hugely, but just in the small amount I’ve seen from him he’s very calm and assured.
“These things take time with infrastructure and players, but Italy will definitely be a force again under his guidance. That’s guaranteed.”
After a 68-10 trashing by New Zealand a fortnight ago at the Stadio Olimpico, Italy are still a long way away from where O’Shea would like to see them eventually progress to.
However, the former Ireland winger insists that last weekend’s drought breaking win over South Africa has galvanised the country and that Italy must now use the result as a benchmark for future success.
“There’s different stages of evolution with countries but a result like this can have such an impact in the long term,” O’Shea told 2fm’s Game On on Monday.
“We turned up to training today and there was over a thousand kids that came down to watch.
“It’s just incredible how a result can galvanise people.
“That’s doesn’t mean it happens every week and I’ve said to them, we’re not going to win [all the time] but we got ourselves into a position where small things within the match were going to decide it and some days they go your way and sometimes they don’t.
“But if we’re competitive on a more regular basis then the people coming up behind will start seeing that things are achievable.”
O’Shea and McKinley’s definition of achievement differ greatly. For O’Shea, achievement with Italy will be turning Europe’s perennial ‘easy-beats’ into a more consistent contender, a goal that a slew of coaches have tried and failed.
For McKinley, his journey is a much less travelled path and success is simply defined by playing, a routine part of the job description for many professional rugby players but a sizeable goal for someone like McKinley, who has played just over 10 games of professional rugby since making his Leinster debut in 2009.
The former UCD outhalf claims that consistency is pivotal to him at this stage of his career but that he would not rule out a call up to the Italian national team if called upon.
“As a professional sportsperson you want to test yourself against the best in the world,” added McKinley.
“You want to reach the highest level that you can reach personally, so I would be very foolish to throw that away, but I have to get to that stage first.
“But for me playing consistently is the key thing. It’s all well and good playing a couple of good games for Leinster and then playing for Treviso, but it’s your consistency in the games that gets you those [international] games.
“But from where I was, considering I was retired three years ago, to where I am now, it’s a big jump. But yeah you just keep on going.”
A suitable mantra for McKinley, O’Shea and the rest of Italian rugby.
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