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By Mark Bendeich
MILAN, Nov 22 (Reuters) - Italy coach Conor O’Shea will no longer have the element of surprise when his team face South Africa on Saturday, a year after they ambushed the former world champions in a huge upset — but he knows they now have the visitors’ respect.
“The first thing you do is gain everyone’s respect and I think, slowly, we are beginning to do that,” the former Irish international told Reuters on the eve of selecting his side to take on the Springboks in Padova.
The visitors, overwhelming favourites to exact revenge for that 20-18 defeat in Florence last November, will not be taking any chances this time around, with besieged coach Allister Coetzee hinting he will name his strongest possible line-up.
But Italy’s performances under O’Shea, now embarking on his second full season in charge, suggest the bookmakers and Coetzee need not worry too much, despite the Springboks’ heavy loss to Ireland and shaky win over France so far this autumn.
Italy have won only four of 16 tests under the Irishman. A week after notching up their first ever victory over South Africa, the Azzurri lost to Tonga, the first of nine straight losses which ended with a much-needed win over Fiji this month.
But O’Shea says Italy, and Italian rugby in general, have come a long way since that shock victory over the Boks.
“We are a lot further down the road,” he said, noting that the squad were fitter and that a new generation of younger players was emerging, promising to add depth to Italy’s talent pool at time when their talisman captain, Sergio Parisse, is preparing for probably his final World Cup campaign.
One of Italy’s premier clubs, Parma-based Zebre, have been rescued from bankruptcy by Italy’s rugby federation, restoring a cornerstone of talent development, and have also hired another former Irish international, Michael Bradley, as coach.
“I am probably more excited now than when I arrived because we can really begin to see things are happening ... There’s so much we have to do but there’s been a lot of hard graft,” O’Shea added.
He knows, though, that along the “long, hard road” he talks about after every defeat, he has to produce a victory now and then to keep the faith of Italian rugby fans and officials who want to see the Azzurri advance into the global top 10.
He wants to see Italy, currently ranked 13, to break through, like Argentina did two decades ago when the Pumas knocked Ireland out of the 1999 World Cup in a game that the Irish had seemed to take for granted, underestimating the Pumas’ pack.
O’Shea, Ireland’s fullback at the time, remembers it well.
“I played against Argentina in the 1999 World Cup when they broke through, and they knocked Ireland out ... So as long as we keep doing what we are doing, we can become a very dangerous team,” he said.
“We can realistically aim to get ourselves back into the top 10 by after the World Cup (in 2019). That should be well within our grasp, given the quality of players we have,” he added.
Italy have landed a tough draw for the World Cup in Japan, in the same pool as New Zealand and South Africa, but O’Shea takes heart from his side’s performance against Argentina in Florence last week, a contest that was tighter than the 31-15 score implied.
The Italian scrum had the upper hand over the Argentines in a game where the lead see-sawed until the final 10 minutes when the Pumas, having starved the Azzurri of possession, scored two late converted tries.
“I know I’m judged on results but I have to look beyond that ... The day will come when we turn the corner in terms of results.” (Reporting by Mark Bendeich,; Editing by Neville Dalton)