Now I know something of how fans of David Bowie and Glenn Frey of The Eagles must be feeling – yesterday Conor O’Shea, Harlequins’ Director of Rugby, announced that he’d be leaving his post at the end of the season. He’s being pretty quiet about where he might be going next, but the rumours that began last October about him taking charge of the Italy national team have surfaced again in the media since Conor’s departure became news. One can only wish him well in all he does – he deserves it.
Here’s a link to Conor’s interview given to Sky Sports yesterday after the story broke – SKY SPORTS
COS, 45, has been at the playing helm of the Quins for nigh on six years. Nobody needs to remind any of the club’s supporters that we were at a desperately low ebb as he arrived, in the wake of one of the biggest scandals ever to hit rugby union – the 2009 Bloodgate Affair. At the time we had been on an upward trajectory under the stewardship of former Leicester Tigers’ legend Dean Richards.
We had suffered the ignominy of Premiership relegation at the end of 2004/2005 and – with Deano having joined us just in time for the ride – had spent the following season in National Division One (now the Championship) sorting a few things out. Commendably, our new Director of Rugby – a bear-like, no-nonsense, dominating Number 8 in his heyday as a player – bought into Quins’ tradition for all-action running rugby (a potential millstone in the era of professional ‘victory at all costs’ rugby if ever there was one) and developed it into a successful style whilst adding his own savvy eye for burgeoning talent and a willingness to develop England-qualified youngsters through our academy.
For the fans, Deano could do no wrong. The occasional sight of his giant stone-faced figure ambling down the stand’s steps towards the end of a disappointing first half would draw sighs of awe and foreboding from the stands, already sympathising with our lads at the anticipation of the bollocking they were probably about to receive in the changing-room during the interval.
Then the ridiculous, unforgiveable, horrendous, disastrous Bloodgate incident happened out of the blue during a Heineken Cup quarter-final home match against Leinster.
The crisis that subsequently engulfed the club – some of it undoubted self-inflicted as panic set in and first those involved at virtually all levels tried to deny everything, then cover it up, then endeavour to ‘find’ the least that we could plead guilty to in the hope that the pain would just go away … only ultimately for the whole ugly and ghastly truth (probably inevitably and thankfully) to emerge – was an experience that will stain the escutcheons of Quins, and everyone associated with the club including its fans, forever.
In the end Deano had to go – as he did, into a three-year exile from rugby.
In that context, whoever replaced him as Director of Rugby had a mountain of a task both on and off the field. Who in the world could possibly be capable of taking it on – indeed, who in the world possessed of their senses would possibly want to?
Somehow, to their eternal credit – whether by nous, intelligence, deep rational thinking, the personal qualities of members of the board and/or its networking links, or just simply good fortune – the club and Conor O’Shea came together.
COS had a rugby thoroughbred’s pedigree. He’d been a full-back, centre or out-half of distinction with Lansdowne, Leinster and London Irish and also Ireland (35 caps between 1993 and 2000). After retiring as a player due to injury at the age of 30 in 2000 he first became head coach and then managing director of London Irish. From there he moved on to become the RFU’s Director of Regional Academies in 2005 and then National Director of the English Institute of Sport in 2008. He joined Quins in March 2010.
Looking back, quite how we managed to progress from the trough of 2009’s Bloodgate debacle to our glorious victory in the 2011/2012 Aviva Premiership Final at Twickenham against Leicester Tigers for which in prospect we had been justifiable distant underdogs, I shall not be alone in wondering to the end of my days.
In no small part, however, it was down to COS.
With a public persona of relaxed Irish bonhomie (he always ends his front-page match programme introductions with ‘See you in the bar afterwards’) combined with cerebral insights and sheer rugby passion, he gave everyone confidence in the Quins ‘project’. He definitely bought into the Quins heritage of attacking rugby, took what Deano had achieved and – with valuable assistance from forwards’ coach John Kingston, academy manager Tony Diprose, skills coach Colin Osbourne and back coach Mark Mapletoft – took it about a stage and half further. The Quins academy is rightly regarded as one of the best in the Premiership (for most of our games over half the first team 23-man match day squad are graduates) and other teams look on enviously at (and try to emulate) the invention and daring of our off-loading, keep the ball moving, attacking moves.
Hard work comes into it, of course. What we fans see in COS as he appears on match days is undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg, just the public face of what will have been another arduous week’s grind of training combined with intense analysis and strategic/tactical planning. [And let’s leave out the mountain of admin and paperwork that has to be done on top].
Ah well – and now he’s going. It will be a wrench for everyone involved at Quins. In many respects, COS represented everything that the club stood for. He’s the kind of guy that, if he hadn’t been our Director or Rugby, we’d have loved to have coveted and acquired. In fact just the sort that I’d have aspired to be, if ever I’d been called to the colours and asked to coach Quins myself (and I won’t be the only one thinking that this week).
As for now, it’s a case of “Thanks for everything, Conor. We’ve had some great times together. Here’s wishing we now can all concentrate over the next four months and annex some silverware to celebrate as you leave us!”
I guess the next thing to contemplate is who the hell can possibly replace you? But, whoever it is, if they can achieve at least 60% of the ‘connection’ that you have had with the Quins faithful, we’ll be all right, mate …