From Casa Amor to Cape Town, 2019 was quite a year for Love Island winner Greg O’Shea.
Or is that professional rugby player Greg O’Shea? Or radio host? Or law graduate?
No matter how you know him, just Greg will do, because that’s who he is.
O’Shea’s profile sky-rocketed over the summer after winning reality TV show Love Island with Amber Gill, and although their relationship didn’t work out in the long run (“it is what is is”), the 24-year-old’s popularity has endured.
Before his reality success, O’Shea helped Ireland make history by qualifying as a core World Sevens Series nation for the first time, and despite his new-found fame, rugby remains the Limerick star’s bread and butter.
“It’s easy to forget that I’ve been a sports player my whole life, and although people say I’m more of a celebrity star now, my main thing is sport,” said O’Shea.
“It was the most unexpected year of my life. I started off the year thinking I was going to do normal stuff, like qualifying as a solicitor and playing with the Sevens.
“We then qualified for Hong Kong, which was my biggest goal from last year, and then Love Island happened.
“It was just bizarre, but I loved every second of it.”
Love Island? I thought, ‘why not?’
While his relationship with Amber Gill didn’t last long after Love Island ended, O’Shea says he has “no regrets” about his experience on the show.
“I didn’t actually apply for it,” he recalled.
“They found me on Instagram, and I’ve no idea how because I only had around 1,000 followers at that point.
“They got onto me and asked me if I would do it, and I said ‘why not?’.”
O’Shea revealed he was offered a place in the original line-up, but his rugby commitments meant he had to wait until the off-season before entering the villa.
“The last two weeks worked, so I went in and I won it,” he recalled.
“The statistics to get into the villa are insane. There’s something like 150,000 people interviewed, and 36 go in. That’s only like 0.02%.
“The chances of winning are even more ridiculous than that. I do count myself very lucky.”
Fame ‘was madness’
After his Love Island win, O’Shea became one of the most recognisable faces in the UK and Ireland. So how do you deal with “the madness” of overnight success?
“The key thing for me was that I surrounded myself with my family and my closest friends. That really kept me grounded,” added O’Shea.
“It was about taking the right opportunities and sticking to my morals, which I think has gone well so far.
“Honestly, you couldn’t have planned it any better with how it worked.
“The IRFU were so nice for letting me go on, and thankfully it went well for me because it was a bit of a risk.
“My team-mates here cut me at the knees straight away, so that kept me grounded too.
“Everyone has been so supportive and I’m really glad about everything that has come from it.”
‘One slip-up and you’re out’
While the Limerick native is best known for his time in the villa, O’Shea says his biggest success in 2019 was helping Ireland qualify for the World Sevens Series after winning the qualification tournament in Hong Kong in April.
After a tricky debut in Dubai in December, where they finished 12th, Ireland stepped up another gear in the second leg and came home sixth in Cape Town. An impressive feat when you consider it was only their second set of matches as a core nation.
“The word we kept using as a group was ‘relief’,” said O’Shea on helping Ireland qualify for the first time.
“We had put so much work into getting there and it is a really hard competition to qualify for.
“Only the winners make it, and it is a case of any slip-up and you are out.”
On paper, a 12th-place finish in Dubai may not sound like anything to shout about, but O’Shea says Ireland’s maiden win over Scotland in their final pool match proved to be a springboard for the following stage in South Africa.
“As a team we probably acknowledged we were a bit tense and a bit stressed with the whole occasion,” reflected O’Shea.
“There was plenty of analysis, and we went to Cape Town with a much better mindset. That’s a stepping stone now to keep on improving.
“We want to do as well as we can, and if we win one of the stages then that would be amazing.
“We’re one of the best teams in the world when it comes to 15s rugby, so we wanted to get the sevens up there with them. Now we are and we’re fighting on the world stage.”
Olympic qualification ‘would be incredible’
After the IRFU set up their sevens programme in 2014, reaching the World Sevens Series capped off a remarkable rise for the sport in Ireland.
“We’ve been through a lot together now,” added O’Shea.
“We’ve been together for four years, starting in European Division C, right through to the World Series now.
“We’re a really tight group of lads and it’s a big year ahead.”
A big year it is. On top of the remainder of their World Series campaign, Ireland have one last shot at making the Olympic Games with a 12-team qualifying tournament, with the final slot at Tokyo up for grabs.
Tournament hosts France are, at least on paper, Ireland’s biggest opposition when it comes to making the Games, and O’Shea says that it would be “a dream” to represent Ireland in Japan.
“The Olympics are the pinnacle of sport, you can’t get higher than that,” he added.
“Anthony Eddy is the brains behind the operation and he has pulled us all together from all corners of Ireland. I’m not even sure how you would label us as a team.
“I think our journey has brought us tighter, and if we could get to the Olympics then that would be amazing and incredible for the whole country.”
‘I want to grow the sport’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, O’Shea’s popularity outside of sport means he is the most-followed rugby player in the world on Instagram.
That brings pressure in itself, but he feels he can use that to try and promote and grow rugby sevens.
“Most of my followers are people who like reality TV, and I’m trying my best to stick to what got me to that position,” he added.
“A lot of people ask me what sevens is. It is exactly what it says on the tin. It is really entertaining sport and I’m hoping my profile can help build it.
“It’s just so exciting. Every time is just ‘try time’. It’s just like a party in the stands and there is a match happening in the middle of it all.”
After representing Ireland at underage level, and with his status, could O’Shea be tempted back to the higher-profile world of 15s rugby?
“I’m really happy with where I am,” he said.
“The money isn’t as lucrative, but it is the lifestyle and the boys. I can’t see myself going back to 15s at the minute, but who knows what will happen in the future.
“People always say about winning Love Island, but my proudest thing is playing for my country and I’ll try and do it for as long as I can.
“I’ve a lot of avenues that I can potentially go down now. And, as the last 12 months show, I am not entirely sure where my life will take me.”