9 December 2005
Chris Jones of the Evening Standard meets Conor O'Shea and discusses his blueprint for the future of England Rugby......
Conor O'Shea cannot keep the smile off his face. Given that he is naturally a happy Irishman, he now has the countenance of a man who has found the key to the candy store. In many ways he has.
O'Shea is the Rugby Football Union's Director of Regional Academies, charged with ensuring the very best of the best are identified in England and given every possible opportunity to reach their rugby potential. For O'Shea, the dynamics of his job are hugely exciting as he is in a position to make a real difference in English rugby.
It may be, therefore, a little disconcerting for some to hear this key figure in the future of English rugby setting his stall out in an Irish accent. But, that only highlights the RFU's commitment to look outside its own borders for the right personnel to help make the master plan a reality.
That plan revolves around increasing the number of young players vying for honours at the top of the English game. Now, O'Shea and his Regional Academy system have been put in place to work with the clubs and schools to maximise the available talent.
The former Ireland and London Irish full back manages England Rugby's regional academies with the support of David Shaw and armed with the brief of leading the selection and monitoring of players capable of developing into future England internationals.
O'Shea retired from playing five years ago due to injury and then held various posts at London Irish including Director of Rugby and Managing Director. He said: "This was a challenge I just couldn't turn down. The RFU's regional academies are blazing a trail of identifying players who dream of one day playing for England.
"I am so lucky to be surrounded by professional staff here at the RFU who are motivated to succeed. I saw from my involvement with the London Irish academy the kind of talent that is out there and in four or five years we will see the fruits of the labour being put into those players right across the country.
"We aim to have a succession of players coming through, rather than talent emerging in dribs and drabs. There are pathways that we haven't even touched which are being addressed in the South West where pilot schemes with Further Education colleges have been started. We have ignored a huge pool of potential players for too long and that is now being addressed by our academy system.
O'Shea reports directly to Chris Spice, the RFU's Performance Director, about the health of the 14 regional academies, while the National Academy is based at the University of Bath. Spice is an experienced Australian sports administrator, O'Shea is an ex- international player, while Brian Ashton, the outgoing National Academy manager, has formerly coached Ireland and England, highlighting the breadth of knowledge being thrown into the mix.
Teenage players are already appearing in Guinness Premiership squads, having been spotted by the embryonic regional academy system that receives talent, spotted by a network that is being encouraged and strengthened under O'Shea's vision for the sport.
He explained "The filtration process begins when thousands of kids start playing the game within their schools or county structure. From here you can be selected into the regional academies elite player development centres and then into their academies. There is the opportunity along the way to be nominated as an England Academy player .
"The idea is that we are working towards identifying the very best who can then be identified for the Junior and Senior National Academy, which is like a finishing school for rugby talent. The earlier we can technically develop young talent, the less they will break down under pressure. It's not just about rugby skills, it's about all aspects of their life."
Having started his rugby career in the amateur era and then embraced every facet of the professional game, O'Shea recognises the dramatic changes that have hit the sport. Patently, with massive changes come massive challenges and maintaining a " balanced life" for young rugby players is a key aspect of their development.
"We want rounded individuals who can make decisions and we have a game to protect;" he added. "We have to try and influence the way we train youngsters. Why is Tiger Woods so good? He started swinging a club when he was very little rather than trying to learn the skill when he was 18. That's true for all aspiring sports men and women. The earlier you learn the technical aspects the better.
" While only one per cent may eventually come through to play international rugby, the game as a whole will be better because of the improved technical levels across the board.
"The regions are doing some amazing work but I truly believe we are only scratching the surface."
With O'Shea at he helm, that will not be the case for very much longer.