Second life sweeps O'Shea back into the pleasure zone

Injury hit hard, but Tim Glover finds Exiles stood by their man
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When Conor O'Shea went down in the mud against Gloucester he did not get up. Many a good player has suffered a similar fate at Kingsholm, but for the London Irish captain this was the beginning of the end. His right leg was all wrong, and even the Shed fell silent.

"I was competing for a ball on the ground and I was screaming at the referee to give us a penalty," O'Shea recalls. "It was two minutes into injury time and we were down by 18 points, so I've no idea why I was being so competitive. As I was rucked off the ball my foot got stuck underneath a body. I went one way and the foot stayed in the mud."

O'Shea's right leg was broken, his ankle dislocated (with a multiple fracture to boot) and the ligaments ruptured. The joint was in a terrible state. "I was lucky because I was treated on site almost immediately by an orthopaedic surgeon who put the ankle back into place."

In the ambulance, the medic removed O'Shea's oxygen mask to ask the full-back for his autograph. "I gave it to him, but it's not the most legible thing he's ever received. It was quite surreal but it sums up the passion of rugby in Gloucester. They were brilliant afterwards, sending me messages of support and goodwill. They're the nicest bunch of people, although they could be a pain in the arse to play against. I can say that now that I've stopped playing."

O'Shea was rucked off the ball by Jake Boer, London Irish's South African flanker who joined Gloucester. "He was massively apologetic. We wound him up by telling him we were thinking of taking legal action. He's a good friend and it was nobody's fault. I was unlucky in that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If my foot had been an inch either way there'd have been no problems."

The ambulanceman's request was timely, for O'Shea never played another game. Try as he might he couldn't shake off the legacy of the injury, which occurred in November 2000. He has had four operations, and never been short of expert medical advice. His brothers Diarmuid and Donal are consultants at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin.

"It never really crossed my mind that I would have to stop playing. Last March I was out on the pitch in full-contact training and then I got a pain that got worse and worse. The ankle ligaments had grown into the joint. It needed a reconstruction, so I had to start all over again. I tried so hard to get back. I was in the gym with the physio three months ago when I turned to pick up a weight and the pain came back. I could run without feeling it, but not very quickly and not for two days in a row. They told me they could keep on operating but that in five years I'd end up with a walking stick. It was a pretty easy decision."

O'Shea, who was born in Limerick and whose father played Gaelic football, winning three All Ireland medals with Kerry, learnt his rugby at Terenure College in Dublin and Lansdowne and Leinster. After playing for Ireland in the 1995 World Cup, he moved to London to take a degree in sports marketing. Clive Woodward, then coaching London Irish, persuaded him to join the Exiles.

"We owe him a lot," O'Shea said. "The club was in the old division two and Clive was responsible for getting us up. With people like Rob Henderson, Justin Bishop and David Humphreys we had a nice little back line, and the way we played was very enjoyable."

O'Shea, very much the modern attacking full-back with a rare turn of pace, made 127 appearances for the Exiles, scoring 62 tries and 412 points; for Ireland he won 35 caps between 1993 and 2000. The Premiership players' player of the season in 1998, he was captain of the club for the last four seasons. In return they have made him director of rugby, his time split between the on-field operation and working on the commercial side.

"It's not a job, it's a pleasure," he said. "Of course I miss playing because if you're not on the pitch you're not really in it. I have a new challenge but I still get a little buzz from the sidelines and I'm highly strung on match days."

O'Shea will be on the edge of his seat at the Madejski Stadium this afternoon when London Irish play Gloucester for a place in the semi-finals of the Powergen Cup. The RFU have decided on a "neutral" venue for the last four – both semis will be at the Madejski on 9 March. So if the Irish beat the Cherry and Whites they can look forward to a home tie. Having confounded most people by featuring near the top of the Premiership, the Irish are also in the last eight of the European Shield. They are hoping for a crowd of 10,000 today at a venue they have committed to for seven years. Although O'Shea's title is director of rugby, the South African Brendan Venter is responsible for coaching and strategy. "As a player, Conor was one of the best full-backs I've ever played with," Venter said, "and now as a member of the management team his support has been invaluable."

At the training ground at Sunbury O'Shea, a young-looking 31, goes jogging with the scrum-half Darren Edwards. They could exchange casualty stories. Edwards dislocated an elbow against Northampton but is on the mend. "I'd like to have finished my career on my own terms, but I've been lucky," O'Shea said. "This could have happened to me when I was 20. I gave it everything and tried to be the best I could be."