By Gavin Mortimer
AN OSCAR for James Hart, but this one came with no tears, tantrum or tedious acceptance speech. The Oscar given to the 22-year-old Grenoble scrum-half was from Midi Olympique, the French rugby newspaper voting him his Player of the Week in the last round of the Top 14 before the tournament took a European break.
It was an accolade well merited. Hart scored 16 points for Grenoble in their 22-20 defeat of Racing Métro, a victory all the more astonishing as the mountain men won away in Paris. No one was happier for the Irish-born Hart than Bernard Jackman, the Grenoble defence coach, whose association with the scrum-half goes back a decade to Clontarf.
“In all the years I’ve been involved in rugby I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as James does,” says Jackman, the former Connacht, Leinster and Ireland hooker. “I remember seeing him with a bag of balls when he was about 13, practising, practising. A lot of people thought he was crazy, just chasing a forlorn dream, but that work ethic has got him where he is today.”
Hart is a driven individual, a man who trains meticulously, doesn’t drink and, according to Jackman, has about every Jonny Wilkinson training manual going. A psychologist might speculate that Hart’s inner tougher comes from the loss of his father when he was on the cusp of adolescence, a shattering experience from which he emerged all the stronger.
Hart’s father was a proud Irishman, his mother, Patricia, is a proud Frenchwoman from Toulouse, and a tough one at that. “I have such huge respect for my mum,” says Hart. “When my dad passed away she went back to work to the look after the three of us (Hart has two sisters). And I was pretty hard to handle as a kid but she did a great job. It was she who taught me that in life if you want something, you must go and get it.”
So that’s what Hart did with his rugby. Though he had a stint with Leinster Under 20s, that was about as good as it got in Ireland. So he returned to Clontarf and eventually got a call from Jackman inviting him to the Grenoble youth academy. Why not? thought Hart. He could speak the language, he knew the culture and so off he went. “The whole French approach is different,” explains Hart, who came off the bench in Grenoble’s Amlin cup defeat to Bayonne last week. “People are emotional. They scream and shout before a game and that can be a shock if you’re not used to it. But I know how the French react and that’s been a great help.”
Like many French scrum-halves, Hart has played a bit at 10, but Jackman says his game is very much in the Irish style, despite the fact he’s a goal-kicking No 9. “He’s more game management-orientated. His natural instinct is tactical.”
Hart agrees but adds that his style is evolving at Grenoble. “In Ireland I was more of a passing nine but I’m taking it on more in France, helped by the fact my speed and vision have really come on at Grenoble.”
Racing can vouch for that, Jonathan Sexton in particular, who probably didn’t expect to see a 22-year-old unknown get top billing. Hart had hoped to have a chat with Sexton after the Racing game but the big man wasn’t in the mood for banter after such an ignominious defeat. Not to worry, he found Ronan O’Gara much more approachable and even got the Racing kicking coach to pose for a photo. “That was a big thrill,” says Hart. “I’ve admired Ronan for a long time so to have him say he was very impressed with my kicking was great.”
Hart found out about his ‘Oscar’ on the Monday after the game. The Grenoble squad were off on a team-bonding day and someone opened his copy of Midi Olympique and there was Hart, singled out as the star of the week. Needless to say his mates all had a good laugh, bowing down before the new star among them.
Jackman is confident Hart can handle his new found fame. In the days following his Oscar he did a raft of interviews for the Irish media and handled each one like a seasoned pro. One question that kept cropping up was his allegiance? If given the chance would he wear the green of Ireland?
“The funny thing is up until I was about 12 I always supported France in everything,” says Hart, when the strictly neutral Rugby World posed the question. “Then as I got older I became more patriotic towards Ireland.
“Obviously I don’t want to get ahead of myself, because I’m not even first-choice for Grenoble at the moment, but if in the future France approached me and Ireland have never given me a thought, I wouldn’t say no.”
But there’s a long time to go before that might happen. Scrum-half is one position where the French have strength in depth, and Ireland aren’t exactly short in the department. For the time being Hart’s happy to try and fill his mantelpieces with more Oscars.
Check out the highlights from Racing Métro v Grenoble below!