The former Ireland hooker is hoping to propel Grenoble up the Top 14 table with a fresh approach and a few new signings
THE WORLD would be a duller place without French rugby clubs. Take Grenoble. Ten years ago the club was going places. They hired Dean Richards, arguably then the most successful club coach in Europe having guided Leicester to back-to-back Heineken Cup titles in 2001 and 2002, and there were ambitions within Grenoble of doing something similar. Richards lasted a season in the job, quitting as the club went bust with debts of €3.6m. Relegated to the amateur leagues, Grenoble regrouped and slowly worked their way back into the top flight while also putting their finances in order.
A decade on, Grenoble are once more dreaming big and it’s an outsider tasked with turning the fantasy into reality. Unlike ‘Deano’, however, Bernard Jackman has a good grounding in the complexities of French club rugby. The former Leinster and Ireland hooker joined the Grenoble staff in 2011 as forwards coach and his long apprenticeship will stand him in good stead now he’s in the top job.
As head coach, the 38-year-old has carte blanche to do things his way and that includes recruitment. “When I bring a foreigner in I want someone who’s going to assimilate into the culture,” explains Jackman. “Not someone who goes around complaining about the way the French do things.” With that in mind, the first of his big pre-season signings was Ross Skeate from Agen. The athletic South African has been hired to boss the lineout. “He brings something to the squad not just with his mobility and his calming presence on the field,” says Jackman, “but also the fact he’s educated, well-rounded and speaks fluent French.”
Skeate’s experience will be crucial, as will that of Gio Aplon and Charl McLeod, two other South Africans signed by Jackman. At the other extreme is 21-year-old Chris Farrell, the former Ireland U20 international who has joined from Ulster. “I think Chris could be the next Yannick Jauzion,” says Jackman. Like the former Toulouse and France centre, Farrell is big (in his case 16st 7lb and 6ft 5in) but he possesses more pace.
“He’s a massive coup for us,” says Jackman. “He’s not a household name in Ireland but people who know their rugby know of his potential.” Injuries hindered Farrell’s progress in Ulster but Jackman says if he stays fit he could be the club’s secret weapon this season. Significantly, Farrell has already mastered the basics of the French language, something that goes a long way in determining which foreigners make a fist of their time in France.
Farrell will have inside him at fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski, recently arrived from Racing Métro after seven up-and-down seasons in Paris. When he’s good, the Frenchman is very good but he’s struggled at times with consistency. “My goal with Jonathan is to get him into the France squad,” says Jackman. “He’s a guy who needs the coach’s confidence and I’ll give him a game plan that I hope helps him fulfil his massive potential.”
Jackman admits that a game plan was something Grenoble missed for much of last season, a season that at one point saw them in the top six only to suffer a slump in form late on that had them scrapping for survival in the final weeks of the campaign.
However, since taking over as head coach Jackman has been meticulous in his preparations for the coming season. It’s going to be a long one, even by French standards, beginning on 16 August and ending with the Top 14 final on 13 June. “I’m working very closely with the S&C (strength and conditioning) people to ensure we have a global plan for the season,” explains Jackman. “It’s such a long season that it’s a case of monitoring everything: from minutes played, to metres run, to loads on players. Fortunately GPS allows us to monitor players much more scientifically so we can build up accurate data on each and make them as fit and as fresh as possible in what’s going to be a marathon season.”
But it won’t be a programme set in stone. “When a season is so long you have to be reactive, perceptive and flexible, so you can change the plan if you think the players need it.”
Such attention to detail hasn’t been the hallmark of all the Top 14 clubs in recent seasons, some of whom have a more old-fashioned approach to fitness than their Anglophone counterparts. As a result, explains Jackman, “the French are capable of playing very fast for a few minutes, when they get caught up in the emotion of the occasion and the passion of the crowd, but they generally struggle to last the pace for 80 minutes”. This is equally true of the national team, whitewashed 3-0 by Australia last month in a series that demonstrated France’s inability to compete at the same intensity as their opponents.
Jackman says that Grenoble will look to play at a high tempo this season, keeping the ball in hand more and asking questions of other teams’ fitness. That’s one reason why he had the squad start their pre-season training on 10 June, although he stresses that it’s not all work and no play. This week, for example, the squad is enjoying a week off and then it’s back to training in readiness for their two-week tour to Argentina. So while their rivals are playing each other in gentle friendlies under the French sun, Grenoble will be facing Argentina in two matches that are part of the Pumas’ preparation for the Rugby Championship.
It’s proof that Jackman means business. By appointing him head coach Grenoble have just made French rugby a little less wacky and a lot more wiser.