‘Some day I’d love to coach in Ireland’ – Jackman driving Grenoble forward

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It’s been a happy pre-season return to Ireland for Bernard Jackman.

Grenoble ran in eight tries as they hammered Pat Lam’s Connacht 52-19 last weekend, before the Top 14 outfit scored six more in a 38-29 win over Munster at Thomond Park on Friday night.

Bernard Jackman
Bernard Jackman

Now into his second year as head coach of the French club, Jackman looks towards next Saturday’s Top 14 opener against Agen with some excitement. After a disappointing second half to last season, Grenoble have renewed ambition to break into the top six and qualify for the Champions Cup.

Off the pitch the club continues to grow, with last season’s average crowd of around 15,500 among the best in Europe.

Jackman is the driving force behind much of the desire FCG have to shift from being a club that is simply happy to be part of the Top 14 to one that looks to challenge.

“We’re pushing, we had a good chat with the board because there was frustration that we played to stay up, played for the maintien,” says Jackman.

“I just don’t think it’s a healthy mindset, because if you look at the last three years when it’s looked like we were safe, our performance levels dropped massively and we ended up being uncomfortable.

Now we’ve decided that we need to be aiming to be in the barrages (play-offs), to be in the Champions Cup and it’s up to us to develop the squad to manage that if we get there.”

The recent examples of Perpignan – relegated in the same season they played Heineken Cup rugby – and Castres – almost relegated last season after being part of the Champions Cup – are forefront in the Grenoble board’s mind, but they’re now onboard with Jackman’s vision.

The ex-Leinster front row has an expanded role this season as head coach, having overseen Grenoble’s attack in 2014/15. His results in that area speak for themselves, with a more structured approach allowing Jackman’s players to express their flair.

Grenoble ended last season with the fourth-best attack in the Top 14 and now Jackman has been handed sole charge of the defence too.

Tyler Bleyendaal
Tyler Bleyendaal

“We have a lot of structure in attack, but we only have that to give ourselves opportunities to play,” says Jackman. “We know if we have good detail around what we do in attack, and based around the oppositions’ strengths and weaknesses, we can hurt teams.

“Now we’ve put that same structure into our defence and it’s a much more aggressive type of system. In Ireland, I would have grown up with an ‘up and out’ defence, but we’re actually going ‘up and in’ with Grenoble.

“We’re looking to have the best linespeed in France and make more impact tackles, more forced turnovers, be really detailed around who does what around the ruck, have more guys on our feet than every other team, get off the ground quicker than any other team, measure that.

We want to measure guys’ performances in minute detail so that when we pick the team we can tell players who aren’t in it whether it’s their ability around the tackle, their ability to be accurate around the ruck, or whether it’s a work-rate issue.”

Jackman’s passion for the game pours through in conversations like these, as he sits up and becomes more animated with his body language. Watching him on the training ground and in video sessions with his players, communicating in French, that same energy is deeply apparent.

His playing career brought him a Heineken Cup with Leinster, made good times with Sale and Connacht, as well as nine caps for his country. He reflects on that with satisfaction, but it’s coaching that has always felt like his true calling.

There is real conviction in 39-year-old Jackman’s coaching philosophy. He rarely hesitates when explaining an idea or underlining how he wants him team to carry out a certain element of their game plan or off-field culture.

He puts that conviction in his beliefs down to constant self analysis since his very first coaching days as a 23-year-old, the beginning of a coaching journey that continued throughout his playing days.

“I always knew I wanted to be a coach,” says Jackman, who coached Tullow, Newbridge, Coolmine, St. Michael’s and Clontarf before joining Grenoble as skills and defence coach initially in 2011, working his way up the ranks from there.

Mike Prendergast and Bernard Jackman
Mike Prendergast and Bernard Jackman

“I always mean to add up how many hours I’ve done, because I keep all my coaching diaries. I’d imagine I’ve done about 3,000 or 4,000 hours of coaching. Every time you coach and review yourself afterwards, you learn.

“When I make mistakes I have to understand I made one, admit it, and try to improve on that. If I had gone straight from playing to coaching, I would have had to develop that confidence in myself on the run with the stress of not knowing what you’re doing.

“Listen, I don’t know it all. There are guys with better philosophies and better game plans than me, but from my point of view I have to be sure what I want. If I’m not, the players won’t be sure. In testing times, if the players know you’ve got belief and you’ve shown that what you preach works, they’ll follow you.”

Jackman is a fan of visiting other rugby environments to learn what he can and challenge his own way of thinking.

While his trips to the FFR base in Marcoussis this summer as part of his French Pro License coaching course have been eye-opening, other journeys in recent years to the Reds, Stormers, Crusaders, Chiefs, and Highlanders were also valuable.

The hospitality Jackman was shown at those Super Rugby franchises has rubbed off on him. Grenoble’s training week in Limerick last week saw a number of Ulster Bank League coaches attending sessions and meeting with Jackman and backs coach Mike Prendergast, the former Munster scrum-half.

“I often learn more from fellas coming in to watch and talk rugby with us than they learn from me,” says Jackman.

“I love the game and I’m very lucky that I got the opportunity to coach professionally at a young age. I know there are other guys out there with more talent than I have, more potential, who don’t have that opportunity.

“I would always say to people to get out and look at what other teams are doing. They might pick up something, or it might validate other ideas they already had.”

Gio Aplon
Gio Aplon

Last season provided a learning curve for Jackman on the job, as he moved from his role as an assistant to Fabrice Landreau (now director of ruby) into the position of head coach.

The biggest lesson of all was around his relationships with the players and learning how different personalities require different stimuli, or perhaps none at all.

“The big thing is man managing the players and getting to know them as blokes first of all, because they’re in a very competitive environment, a dog-eat-dog environment,” says Jackman.

It’s important they get the information they need to become better and you always need to look and see how you can motivate guys. One technique might work for one person, but not for someone else.”

Jackman’s current contract with Grenoble runs until 2017 and he says his plans beyond that point are not fully detailed yet. The lure of potentially returning home will always be there, particularly from a family life point of view.

In our own insular rugby world, the provincial jobs might sometimes seem like the only goal for an Irish coach, but Jackman is demonstrating that there are opportunities abroad for the right people with the right mentality.

Whatever about future prospects in Ireland, Jackman underlines that he is in only his second year as head coach of a professional team and that he needs to make a success of this project before addressing any others.

“Those jobs in Ireland are great jobs, but I’m very happy where I am,” says Jackman. “My long-term plan is to be the best coach I can be and be successful and win trophies.

“Some day I’d love to coach in Ireland, and it would probably good for my kids to be educated in Ireland.

Bernard Jackman
Bernard Jackman

“I’ve been lucky that we moved when they were young, but it might be better for them to be in one place for secondary school. My daughter is eight now, so that’s four years away. There’d be half a plan for that, but it’s very hard to say what jobs would come up or if I’d get a job in four or five years’ time.

For my coaching, if I want to stay in the game – and it’s a fickle game – I can’t think about anything else until I’ve finished the job in Grenoble.

“I like the short-term plan that Grenoble have about kicking on and if we do that with Grenoble, I’ll have been part of a brilliant journey from Pro D2 to Top 14, building in terms of crowds too.”

“For me, the real reward or justification of my work in Grenoble would be to pass that cap and become a top six club.”

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