With several players from Britain and Ireland moving to French rugby it is quite easy to forget that a few retired stars are also beginning the next stage of their careers there, in a coaching capacity. Alex King has impressed as backs coach at Clermont Auvergne and his former Wasps and England teammate Joe Worsley is nearing the end of his first season at Bordeaux-Begles, as their defence coach, where he has already helped safeguard their Top 14 status for another season.
Bernard Jackman, the former Ireland international hooker who played for Connacht, Sale and Leinster has a similar role to Worsley but at Grenoble, in a picturesque setting at the foot of the French Alps. Initially, however, the opportunity to coach in France was by no means the typically Gallic glamorous rugby tale – it was fraught with uncertainty.
At the start of last season Jackman was offered a ten week contract by Grenoble’s manager, Fabrice Landreau, and given the responsibility of tightening a weak defence to help secure promotion from the second tier Pro D2, back to the Top 14. He immediately saw an opportunity. “Defence isn’t a big part of French rugby. It’s not systematic – it’s done at the end of training or in reaction to a bad performance. In those ten weeks we just tried to get the players to enjoy defence but to understand the importance of it and I emphasised that if we get our defence right, we’d go up.”
It worked wonders. Grenoble finished top of the Pro D2, conceding just thirteen tries, although when I mention this he, in an entirely polite manner, is quick to emphasise that five of those tries were conceded “at the end of the campaign, after we had secured promotion.” Holes well and truly plugged.
It is easy to understand why he has had such a positive impact on the side. His enthusiasm and knowledge of the game, of defensive structures and coaching in general, is infectious. He researches Grenoble’s opponents extensively, watching several matches each week and uses the latest video analysis technology to enhance his team’s performance. “I cut videos after matches and also give the players reports and additional data to help prepare for upcoming games.” As most clubs in France only have a head coach, a forwards coach and a backs coach, as is certainly the case with the majority of Pro D2 sides, bringing in the nine times capped former Ireland front rower was evidently an inspired move by Landreau.
The goal for Grenoble at the start of this season was simply to avoid relegation – an understandable primary objective considering the gulf between the top two divisions and the fact that, brutally, two Top 14 teams are relegated each year. The side achieved this aim weeks ago, helped by an impressive 15-6 home victory over Toulouse just before Christmas, and the process of building for next season has already begun. Grenoble are, however, on a much stricter budget to the likes of Toulouse, Toulon, Racing Metro and other sides in the league. “We have a strong work ethic. We can make up the difference by working harder in training and on our fitness but we can’t compete financially with the top teams.”
Grenoble have still managed to bring in players from abroad, including current captain, and former Connacht lock, Andrew Farley, who arrived in 2009. There are no Luke McAlister, Jonny Wilkinson or Sitiveti Sivivatu galactico characters in their squad, but in January the club did announce the signing for next season of the Brumbies’ twenty four year old Australian international, Dan Palmer. The move has clearly delighted Jackman and when you consider that Australian coach Robbie Deans, who himself had a short stint at Grenoble as a player in the 1980’s, has included the tighthead prop in his training squad for the Lions series, it is easy to see why. “He wants to come to France to prove himself. He loves to scrum – he is pretty much the Brumbies’ scrummaging coach and will hopefully be a brilliant signing for us.”
Jackman, who will be joined by former Munster scrum half Mike Prendergast on the Grenoble coaching team next season, still follows Irish provincial and national team developments with a keen interest and regularly flies back to Ireland to work as an analyst on broadcaster RTÉ’s rugby coverage. When I approach the subject of who should replace Declan Kidney as Ireland coach, I have barely finished asking the question when he utters the name Joe Schmidt. “The IRFU have to give it to Joe to be honest. He’s proven himself and is held in very high regard, including by the other provinces. He also has a great record of bringing through younger players.” He emphasises that this will be crucial in the coming years as Ronan O’Gara, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell are heading towards the end of their impressive careers.
Likewise, of all the French based players that Lions coach Warren Gatland, who signed Jackman at Connacht and selected him in the Ireland squad for the 1998 tour to South Africa, could take to Australia he without hesitation puts forward the case of a former Leinster team mate. “If I was picking one wildcard from France it would be Nathan Hines. Very powerful, athletic and if they go after the scrum they should pick Hines.”
Our chat ends a few hours before Grenoble’s remarkable 25-24 home win against Toulon, in front of a sell-out crowd in their last home game of the season. The team and management were already scheduled to spend a couple of rest days together at the start of this week in the nearby ski resort of L’Alpe D’Huez. Jackman is understandably enjoying his French adventure and has recently agreed a one year extension to remain in his role until the end of next season. His efforts will not be going unnoticed back home in Ireland.
Written by Alastair Pickering of @FollowRugbySite – a new site that groups rugby Twitter accounts into relevant club and international teams and many other useful categories www.follow-rugby.com. To launch the site they have set up a Lions squad selection competition – guess who Warren Gatland will take to Australia. COMPETITION CLOSES AT 10PM TONIGHT (APRIL 25th) SO PLEASE SELECT YOUR LIONS SQUAD AS SOON AS POSSIBLE – enter here www.follow-rugby.com/competition