Wednesday 26 September 2018

Irish can shock 'Boks

O'Shea lauds senior leaders like Sexton, Heaslip and Murray

Former Ireland full-back Conor O’Shea has hazy memories of his tour to South Africa in 1998. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Ireland full-back Conor O’Shea has hazy memories of his tour to South Africa in 1998. Photo: Sportsfile

Conor O'Shea's memories of 'The Battle of Pretoria' back in June of 1998 are hazy, at best.

Ireland were being put through the mill of a humiliating 33-0 whitewash by South Africa when the Ireland full-back was almost separated from his senses.

"My memory is ringing home after the game to talk to my mum and her saying: 'Oh, are you okay, where were you?'

"And I said: 'It's okay. I've recovered.'

And she said: 'Well, you weren't involved in the fight?'

And I said: 'That's because I was knocked out'.

"I started the fight because I was clothes-lined on one side of the pitch and the fight took place on the other side of the pitch.

"I was knocked out but, as was the way in those days, I got up and played on which would never happen nowadays, thankfully."

It was the second of two tests in which Ireland shipped a total of 70 points for the meagre reply of 13.

Ireland have never won on South African soil, losing on all seven occasions.

"It is incredibly difficult," said O'Shea.

"If you go to South Africa you've got to be prepared to leave your comfort zone and understand that they are the most physical and proud nation.

"When you go to Pretoria or Kimberly, or all those places, you have the massive Afrikaans men and they're going to come and come and come."

For all of the historical negativity, the current Harlequins and soon-to-be Italy Director of Rugby has an optimistic, half-full outlook about Ireland's three tests there in June.

"I actually think this Irish team, or the group, will be capable of going out there to spring a surprise," he noted.

"If you're willing to front up to what's coming which Ireland will now and can, because they have the fitness levels to do it, it could be a great tour."

O'Shea is also confident some observers have "completely over-reacted" to where Irish rugby stands at present.

"The minute you say that, people say: 'That's ridiculous, he's putting his head in the sand', but that's my opinion.

"I think Ireland will be right back," he said.

"They already were this year, drew with Wales, lost by a point to France, they were ravaged with injuries.

"I'll put it completely differently. It would be more that when you take senior leaders out of a team, that team is different.

"It doesn't matter which way you cut it, you don't take Iain Henderson, Seán O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony out of a team and it doesn't make a difference. Full stop.

"I don't care how good the players are coming in.

"You can cut it whatever way, but I always look at a spine of senior leaders.

"Now, I look at the Irish team and wonder, 'did other people step up during the Six Nations and actually take the lead?'

"I think they did," he said.

"You look at people like Johnny (Sexton) and how he played. I think there's an issue - to get someone who is anywhere near his quality when he gets injured.

"I thought Conor Murray and Jamie (Heaslip)'s performances, as it went on, were brilliant.

"We unearthed some really good young fellahs who learned, not through victory, but through tough times," he stated.

It should stand to them in the toughest place to tour.

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