Bernard Jackman arrived at Grenoble five years ago as a consultant. Now he’s about to embark on his first Top 14 season as the club’s boss.
The departure at the end of last season of director of rugby Fabrice Landreau means that Jackman is now in charge, and he’s welcoming the extra work that comes with that seniority ahead of the season opener against Stade Français on Saturday.
“I had a very good relationship with Fabrice but when you’re only the head coach working under a director of rugby, it’s not your project,” he explains.
“Now it is mine, and it’s important for me now I have full control that I do it my way. I’m enjoying it, it’s a huge extra workload, and I’ll live or die by the results at the end of the day. But I am enjoying it.”
Doing things Jackman’s way has meant that in contrast to most of the big-money recruitment in France, Grenoble have actually gone about their business sparingly.
Only three new faces reported for pre-season in a deliberate change of approach. All three of them too have a significant role to play in trying to move Grenoble up the table from last season’s 11th place.
“I’m in my fifth season here and historically we have gone out and got ten to twelve players, and I don’t see any long-term plan with that. We targeted guys who really fitted in with what we needed,” Jackman said.
“Someone like Sisa Waqa – we had a guy called Alapati Ratini who blossomed under us but unfortunately had lifestyle issues so we had to sack him. We hadn’t replaced him with an X-factor finisher out wide. Waqa, who I’ve been tracking for a few years and tried to sign a few years ago but we couldn’t get him out of his contract with the [NRL side Melbourne] Storm, has played a lot of rugby union before he crossed codes, so it’s not like a Sam Burgess situation. He knows the game and is finding his feet pretty quickly, and he’ll give us something different to last year.
“We signed Aly Muldowney from Connacht and again while he might not be that well-known, he was probably the form second row in the PRO12 last year. We have a similar attacking system to Connacht where our locks are prominent in the middle of the field and he was a guy recruited to fit into the structure.
“And the last guy was David Mélé, arriving via Perpignan, Leicester and Toulouse. He didn’t play a lot last year but I remember him from his time at Leicester and speaking to Geordie Murphy, they gave him big raps in terms of his professionalism and his character.
“Because we play a very structured game, having someone like him who has been to an English club and worked in that environment, he gives us a different profile to our other high-quality scrum-half in Charl McLeod. With David and Charl, we can now alter our structure in the middle of the game whereas last year we didn’t have the capacity to do that.
“I’d be surprised if all three of those guys didn’t play a whole load of minutes for us.
“In France, it’s normally always change for the sake of change. Coaches will change players as a kind of excuse to the president that “it wasn’t a coaching issue”. We feel there’s more potential in our group and our prerogative is to get that out of him.”
Matching the budgets of the league’s monster clubs too has never been harder. Jackman knows the disparity in finances is having a bigger impact on the outcome of the Top 14 than ever before.
Fixtures viewed as potential upsets in the past are now thin on the ground, making his job that much more difficult but also arguably more fulfilling.
“The league is getting a lot more professional. In my first couple of years it was easier for the smaller clubs to win at home. The big clubs didn’t have the same depth as they do now, so they were really strong, but they would send weaker teams away and it was easier to win. Now with the big squads at the Toulons, Montpelliers, the Racings… I spoke to [Racing 92 assistant coach] Ronan O’Gara yesterday and his second-string backline is phenomenal! That’s the way the league has gone,” he notes.
“Those clubs are tooled up now to play Champions Cup and Top 14, which is a longer league than the PRO12 and Premiership, and they’ve really gone out and bought in depth. French clubs have started to do a lot better in Europe than they historically did, compared to when the Irish teams were dominating.
“It’s difficult, but my job as a head coach is to maximise the potential I have available. If we can get our players performing to the absolute maximum we can compete. Whereas some of the big clubs can have guys at 80 percent and still manage to win. You have to believe that with good preparation and good culture, smart tactics too, that we can win.
“It’s a big challenge, because it’s easy to coach good players because things happen naturally for them. I was reading a book about [Manchester City manager] Pep Guardiola – obviously he’s put a big structure in place defensively and in the middle and in attack, but he said once those good players get on the ball, he just leaves them to it. That’s the case with a lot of talented individuals, particularly backs. They make things happen off the cuff to a certain extent and use natural ability to beat people.”
Waqa certainly sounds like the kind of player to deliver those bits of magic and Grenoble you sense will need them for a fast start, to put to bed a disappointing run of six defeats which ended last season. Although being fair, Jackman’s squad were ravaged by injuries to key players, seven in total, forcing his hand to blood some of club’s academy players after a demanding Challenge Cup run to the semi-finals.
In the short-term, it was a painful way to conclude a season that at times had promised more. The benefits however are already on display for Jackman in pre-season.
“While it was horrible – I know they’re better players now. What it did for those younger players was make them realise the difference between Espoirs rugby and the Top 14,” he adds.
“I’ve noticed they are different animals now in pre-season, with a better work ethic. I wouldn’t want to re-live that period ever, but the advantage was that the guys who played at the end of the season are still with us and the younger guys have had a taste of what it takes.”
Key figures though still remain sidelined heading into the opening weekend, with Hendrik Roodt, Fabien Barcella and Nigel Hunt all injured with Rory Grice concluding the final six weeks of his nine-week suspension for hitting referee Alexandre Ruiz with his gumshield, which despite being an almost comical incident Jackman has accepted.
“Honestly, he threw it in frustration and it went in between two players and hit the referee. If you had 100 chances to throw a gumshield at a target… anyway you have to accept it, it was a silly thing to do and a harsh lesson.”
Those four players, Roodt and Grice especially, will be sorely missed against Stade Français, the 2015 champions also eager to put an underwhelming campiagn behind them.
Jackman assessed their disappointing campaign by saying: “They struggled to deal with that Top 14 success and to get back into the same frame of mind, but they’re still a good side. The hard thing for me is they’ve only played one friendly, losing heavily to Toulon, making it hard for us to predict where they are going to be. They had a pretty horrendous season given the quality they have. But you would imagine they will be a lot better.”
Grenoble you sense will be much improved as well, despite some pre-season predictions for them to be relegated. Jackman has a squad full of under-rated talents, with a recognised Test player in Gio Aplon and a points-machine in fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski.
The fitness of those key players will be vital. Although major wins, such as last season’s at home to Toulon, won’t be that much of a surprise either.
“In Midi Olympique all the coaches have a go at predicting who will finish where, and they opted for us to go down. I know our group work a lot harder and smarter than we did last year, and that when they majority of our squad are fit and ready to go we can beat anybody,” Jackman says.
“We won’t set any targets, but I’m hopeful if we can improve and get everything right we can be around the top six, but there’s a lot of rugby to play first.”