Exclusive: Greg O’Shea on shunning Love Island fame for Ireland Olympic dream
For most elite athletes, being cooped up inside a house amid the coronavirus outbreak is an alien concept, but the same can not be said for Greg O’Shea.
The Ireland rugby sevens player is comfortably the most followed rugby player in the world with over one million Instagram followers, and it was in isolation that he first shot to fame.
In the summer of 2019 O’Shea became a reality TV star, winning dating show Love Island - where singles are locked in a Spanish villa with the intention of finding love, and surviving weekly evictions.
Despite the obvious absence of palm trees and a jacuzzi back in his Limerick family home, the man from the south of Ireland believes his current isolation experience is not so far removed from that of Love Island.
“It's the exact same thing,” O'Shea, who recently turned 25 while in isolation, told Olympic Channel via video call.
“Waking up, having a shower, getting ready to go out your back garden. Everyone's living their own Love Island right now!”
But if any Irish rugby players thought the isolation may present an opportunity to cut corners at training, the wonders of modern technology have ensured they think again.
“We all got sent out GPS units. So it's like having a coach watching you even though you're by yourself.
“We have exact rest times that we’re supposed to stick to between runs, and they can tell if you're taking too long a rest, and how fast you've covered a certain amount of metres, so you can't get away with anything.
“It’s great because we're trying to get to the Olympics, so we need to be staying on top. And just because we're self-isolating, doesn’t mean the work stops” - O'Shea to Olympic Channel
Dual international sportsman
O’Shea is part of the Ireland rugby sevens team that is battling to become the 12th and final qualifiers for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
However, as a dual-international sportsman in his school days, it looked like he may one day go to the Olympics in a different discipline.
“I was a guy who tried every sport. I ended up funnelling down towards athletics and rugby, and I competed internationally at both of them at the same time,” O’Shea, who is the son of two former Ireland athletes, continued to Olympic Channel.
“I remember one year I was at the European Youth Olympics [Festival] in Turkey. Then I flew straight from there and came back and played for the Munster Schools [provincial] rugby team.
“I competed in athletics until about 16. I ran 10.87s for the 100m, which was all right at the time. But I just loved rugby and that's why I moved into that, and sevens really suits me the most because I have that sprinting background."
“The funny thing is that I was always the fast lad in rugby teams all the way up through all the age grades. And then I got into the sevens and I'm only middle-of-the-road! The likes of Jordan [Conroy] and Terry Kennedy are just some of the fastest lads I've ever seen.”
Choosing Olympic dreams over celebrity lifestyle
O’Shea’s arrival certainly provided something different in the Love Island villa. While most of the contestants were glossy-magazine ready, with seemingly not a hair out of place, the athlete arrived straight from an Olympic qualifying tournament in France, having accrued noticeable singlet tan lines and all the usual bumps and bruises that come with being a rugby player.
After winning the show, O'Shea was inundated with opportunities to work as a celebrity in London. But the temptations of that lifestyle could not sway the boy from Limerick from pursuing his Olympic dreams.
“It is nuts! I had the option of moving to the UK and following the celebrity lifestyle and being the it-person at a time,” O’Shea revealed.
“But for me, that just didn't sit right because I've been working for so long for this goal in rugby and to get to the Olympics and play in the World [Rugby Sevens] Series.
“I'm like, will I throw it all away just for a two week show that I'd been on? So I decided I'm going to move home, get back training with the boys. A lot of people gave me a lot of stick for throwing away the golden ticket, but I’m more than happy with my decision.”
The rapid rise of Ireland rugby sevens
The gossip magazines’ loss has been Irish rugby’s gain.
The Emerald Isle’s sevens programme began four years ago, and since then have rocketed to the top table of the game.
O’Shea joined the team towards the end of the first year, and was one of the linchpins of the 2019 side in Hong Kong that gained qualification to the prestigious World Rugby Sevens Series.
“We started in European Division D, I think it was in Bosnia-Herzegovina, playing people like Israel and Croatia. They are great countries, but you'd never think of them in a rugby sense.
“Then you go C, B, and then last year we got to the final qualifier for the World Series in Hong Kong. Having lost out on qualification there the year before, which was heartbreaking, we came back again and we won it, which is probably the proudest moment I've ever had as a sports person.
“The pressure we felt as a team to get Ireland on to the series was so immense because we lost the year before. In sevens, one bounce of the ball and you can lose the match, and that's the beauty of the game."
“The next day we went out in a boat on the Hong Kong harbour and we got drinks and food supplied. The sun was shining and we were driving off the boat. It was amazing."
“It’s memories over money”
With no uncompetitive games and an unrelenting travel schedule that includes Sydney, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Dubai and Los Angeles, the World Series learning curve is a steep one for newcomers.
This is especially true for the Irish team, most of whom have part-time jobs to supplement their income as sevens players.
However, despite playing against more experienced, fully professional sides, Ireland already look right at home in the top league with Jordan Conroy currently sitting atop the try-scoring charts in an impressive debut campaign.
“It's a cliché saying it's memory over money, but the memories we have travelling the world playing ball together are very fine.
“The lifestyle is so enjoyable. We're basically getting to travel the world and see the world and get paid a little bit of money to play rugby with our mates. We've become such good mates that we even hang out outside of rugby, which can't be said for many other teams out there.
“Going to places like Vancouver where it's a packed stadium, 50,000 people scream for you and we're just loving it. And it's just about getting results now and actually fighting for a top four place or even winning a leg.”
O’Shea’s first experience playing against Rio 2016 gold medallists Fiji also left a lasting impression.
“Those lads are honestly man mountains. They're 6’5, 120 kilos and they're faster than you as well. It's like, how am I supposed to deal with this person?
“Individually, yes the person's incredible and good luck trying to make a one-on-one tackle, but then as a team you can work in your defensive systems which makes them beatable, because you’re working together."
The recently-announced Olympic postponement comes with a bittersweet tinge for the Irish, who will possibly gain more time to develop their skills as a team before the final Olympic qualifying tournament.
“We're obviously very excited to play in that Olympic qualifier and to try and get to Tokyo this year. But we're still finding our feet a bit, so another year doing it is only going to stand us in better shape.
“So fingers crossed, we can keep getting bigger, faster, stronger and get there and represent Ireland in the Olympics.”
Joining Ireland in that event will be World Series regulars France, who will also fancy their chances at clinching the final Olympic qualifying spot.
O'Shea may have many options available to him, but he is in no doubt which is the best route for him to follow over the coming months.
“The other thing is that my legal career is now being put on hold as well. I have started doing some TV and radio work, but I obviously have my main focus which is rugby.
“So I’m just going to keep training away and keep improving on my abilities and try to get out of the self-isolation the best shape I can, get back together as a team and try and qualify for the Olympics. Everything else just fits around that.
International rugby player, former athlete, reality TV show winner, pilates instructor, and a qualified lawyer. O’Shea has a knack of succeeding at most things he puts his mind to. Given his, and Ireland's, dedication to achieving their Tokyo 2020 dream, the word ‘Olympian’ may be added to the end of that list in 2021.