By hook or by crook
June 7, 2012
Grenoble celebrate their promotion to the Top 14 Orange © PA Photos
The Top 14 2011-12 campaign comes to an end this weekend but preparations are already well underway at newly promoted Grenoble ahead of next season. Prominent in their cabinet war room, planning their assault on the top-tier of French rugby, is former Leinster and Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman.
He is no ordinary ex-professional hooker. Not only is he fluent in Japanese but he is living proof that the old perception of the front-rower being a physical animal and focused solely on shoving the head of their opponent as far up his own rear as possible is now a near-extinct breed.
Forced to retire from rugby due to a string of concussions - he suffered 20 in his final three seasons in the game - Jackson knew that he wanted to turn his hand to coaching. While fellow ex-hooker Olivier Azam is excelling on the south Mediterranean coast at Toulon as their forwards coach, Jackman ignored the attractions of forwards or scrum coaching and opted to go for a role focused on the defence - in the east of France.
"I like the way defence works - it's very systematic and black and white," Jackman told ESPN. "There's a real honesty to good defences and to how they react and scramble for each other. I've enjoyed working on guy's technique. You have to be good at tackling - you must understand what goes into achieving the tackle and then the aftermath.
"You'd be surprised at how many professionals don't know the technique of the tackle and instead rely on brute force.
"It's a case of work-rate and nous and I like the analytical aspect of it. If you're an attack coach it's more creative and more decision-making goes into it - there's not necessarily a right answer in terms of being an attack coach but there is in defence."
For Jackman, two years with Clontarf RFC from 2009 was his apprenticeship but in his own words, it was not seen as a recognised stepping-stone onto the coaching ladder. He decided to leave his role there and pursue other options and after throwing out some feelers, he persuaded France PRO D2 side Grenoble to let him coach their defence in the 2011-12 pre-season on a two month contract - after former Connacht team-mate and Grenoble skipper Anthony Farley also sang his praises.
Such was the success of Jackman's work that Grenoble kept him on as a part-time consultant throughout last season. Fast-forward to now and Grenoble are preparing for life in the Top 14 after gaining promotion with Jackman's work at the forefront of everything they have done well. He has been rewarded with a permanent full-time contract meaning that the Jackman family will be moving en masse to France in the coming weeks.
It will be some baptism of fire for Jackman with 10 hours of French lessons a week upon arrival and then he faces the task of masterminding a way that the team can compete with Top 14 giants such as Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne on a tiny budget in comparison. Grenoble have already brought in Sale's Joaquin Tuculet and Toulouse's Shaun Sowerby and they are the type of player that Jackman sees the team being built around.
"We've recruited guys who have points to prove and are maybe unfulfilled in their own careers," he said. "We want to build a tight close-knit squad and I think the Exeter Chiefs model is an excellent one. If we do our job well as coaches then and get clarity across and secure the nature of what we're trying to achieve then that covers any perceived deficiencies between our set of players and the others in the league.
"Back in 2005, Grenoble were a Top 16 club but were moved down two divisions due to financial reasons. They have a solid backing now and it's a case of taking that onto the field. It's a huge opportunity for our players to achieve some milestones in their career and look back on the year with some good memories."
Former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman on the charge back in his playing days © PA Photos
But while the suits in the boardroom are busy bolstering their squad, Jackman is already focusing on his defence remit and is busy identifying areas he can tweak and a solid platform on which Grenoble can build a side capable of retaining their Top 14 status.
For Jackman, he singles out Ireland coach Les Kiss as his greatest influence. Kiss was the man who masterminded Ireland's famous victory over the Wallabies in the 2011 World Cup with the 'choke tackle' at the forefront of their win.
"I was in the Irish squad in 2009 when we probably the first team to choke and it was a big part of us winning the Grand Slam," Jackman said. "Since then, the opposition catch on to what you're doing and go to ground a lot earlier. But fast-forward two years and that was a fundamental reason for our win over Australia.
"Les is an immensely intelligent man. He's worked in South Africa and with the Waratahs and he's always looking for a new angle and has been the biggest influence on my career from a defence point-of-view."
Jackman is fully aware of the potential risk he is taking with Grenoble. They are going into the unknown - while Bordeaux surprised the Top 14 in an Exeter manner with a eighth-place finish in their debut season, for every success story there are those who are used as basis for comparison. But you can't help but feel after talking to Jackman and listening to just how passionate, and indeed clued up, he is on the subject of defence, that Grenoble are in safe hands.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.