The Amlin Cup fixture between London Wasps and Grenoble gave me a chance to meet and interview the newly announced head coach of the French team Bernard Jackman. Having done a bit of research I knew I was going to meet an interesting man but I had no idea just how interesting. Following on from my interview with Hugh Vyvyan of Saracens one of the things I really wanted to find out about was how Bernard and his rugby career had prepared him for life after playing rugby.
Bernard started playing rugby at the age of 12 for a local club, Lansdowne. After leaving school he went to Dublin City University to study International Marketing and Japanese – clearly a bright spark then! While at Uni Bernard played at Clontarf Rugby; a club founded in 1876. The coach at the time was a Kiwi by the name of Brad Pope and he was to have a big influence of Bernard. Another Kiwi who was coaching in Ireland at that time was however to change the direction of Bernards’ life. Warren Gatland was in the country as the Connacht coach. In 1997 24 professional contracts became available across the 4 regions; Gatland wanted Bernard for one of the 6 available for Connacht. This was at the time that Bernard was due to spend the 3rd year of his degree in Japan. Something of a quandary; professional rugby? Or a year in foreign lands and a completed degree? In fact the decision was really a no brainer and Japan would have to wait. The degree was altered to Business Studies and Bernard achieved a 2.1 to go with his pro rugby contract!
Bernard played for 2 years at Connacht but his heart was with Leinster; however at that time in the early days of pro rugby players weren’t allowed to move from one region to another. In 1999 Bernard did find himself in a foreign land but not as exotic as Japan as he signed for Sale Sharks. He helped them win the European Challenge Cup in the 2001-2002 season and played with the likes of Charlie Hodgson and Mark Cueto. Jim Mallinder and Steve Diamond also paired up to coach the team and turn their fortunes around.
Now comes an amazing fact – Bernard still had the desire to play for Leinster after 2 years in England but no contract was available for him. He moved back to Ireland and worked as a pharmaceutical rep for a year! During this time he played club rugby; now that must have been pretty scary for his opponents as the 6ft 1 pro turned up. He scored 14 tries that year! But this is a very determined man who has been the master of his own destiny all through his career; opportunities came for Bernard to play for both Connacht and Leinster. In 2005 at long last he signed for Leinster and in spite of breaking his leg early on he became a regular first team player. He added to the medal he won at Sale helping Leinster win the Celtic League and Heineken Cup. Ironically Bernard received his first cap for his country in Japan and went on to be a part of the team who won the 6 Nations. Another medal to add to his tally!
Bernard has been a great advocate of a change in attitude towards concussion in rugby; he explained how he himself suffered several such injuries yet managed to hide the fact. With the short playing career available to professional players in such a physical sport this must be a temptation, but goodness it’s a dangerous way to keep your place in the squad. In his opinion a 5 minute concussion bin isn’t long enough to assess whether a player has suffered a concussion injury.
At the age of 33 Bernard’s life was to change direction again – I do have to say that at this point as we were talking there was lots of laughter – 33 when you’re Irish is a very hard thing to say! With the series of concussions and basically little or no cartilage in his knees Bernard was ready to hang up his boots. Leinster offered him a new contract in February 2010 but, the doctor refused to sign him as fit to play. That saw the end of a very successful playing career.
His year out of rugby had shown Bernard just how fragile the ‘job’ could be – because in spite of what we as fans believe that is what the pro game is – a way to pay the bills basically. So during his playing days he opened a retail business while at Connacht and started coaching at the age of 23 as a volunteer. He also completed his Level 1 and 2 coaching qualifications. Another hugely interesting fact here, Bernard will take his Level 3 qualification in France in 2014; he plans to return to Ireland so will have to complete a module not included in the French qualification – that being emotional intelligence. That intrigues me and gives more value to the appointment by Saracens of Dr David Priestley as Head of Psychology.
Bernard returned to Uni and took a Masters in Sport & Exercise Management; at the same time building on a number of opportunities. His book ‘Blue Blood’ was released and he took the chance to work in TV with RTE and radio with Newstalk, he also wrote a weekly article for the Examiner. As far as rugby was concerned Bernard meant for his experience and qualifications to be put to good use and he took a number of positions coaching a schools team, being the rugby co-ordinator at the university. He also made a return to coach Clontarf, they won promotion during his time there.
During this time Bernard had an agent in England, France and Ireland; but a personal contact was to give him his first taste of French rugby. He contacted Andrew Farley who had been captain at Connacht and was now in the same role at Grenoble. They had finished second in the pro league and were in the play offs but their defence was lacking. Bernard spoke to Fabrice Landreau the Head Coach and in spite of never having been a Defence Coach sold his philosophy to the French man. He committed to pay to go to New Zealand for 4 weeks to learn more from the very best. He spent a week with each of the Highlanders, Crusaders, Cheifs and Blues. In common with Ireland the NZ RFU run rugby in the country so the coaches were All Blacks coaches, explains some of the success of the national team I’d say. Grenoble offered Bernard a 10 week contract he backed himself and went solo for the first 4 weeks taking his young family over for a 6 week holiday for the last 6 weeks. There was no money to keep him after the initial contract but he left with the promise that if the team were promoted they’d bring him back.
By Christmas Grenoble were going so well they were close to promotion and that feat was achieved in March. True to his promise Fabrice Landreau offered Bernard a year’s contract. The team are doing well in the Top 14 and the news had leaked during the week we met that Bernard will start the 2014-15 season as Head Coach for the French team; with Landreau staying on in the role of Director of Rugby. The man from Ireland will be one of only two foreign coaches in the league. Bernard and Grenoble continue to learn from as many sources as possible, He went to South Africa in May for 2 weeks; spending a week with the Queensland Reds and a week with the Stormers in the build up to their game. Reds were at the time coached by Ewen McKenzie the new Australia coach, Quade Cooper who was one of the stars of the Autumn Internationals is thriving under his club coach; what a difference the choice of coach for the Lions tests made. The Grenoble fitness coaches spent 2 days at Arsenal this year and staff have also spent time with race horse trainers. It’s a complicated thing this rugby malarkey. And Grenoble are looking at all avenue to help elevate them to the top 6 in what Bernard believes to be the hardest, most physical league in the world. I have a feeling that with such a determined man on their side Grenoble will succeed in that ambition. I would also love to place an early bet that sees Bernard Jackman back in the country of his birth as coach to one of the regions. Either way it’s clear that this highly intelligent and ambitious man will continue on his journey gaining success as he goes. I’ll be asking for an interview again when he’s leading his country!