the wild geese of grenoble

FC GRENOBLE ARE UP TO FIFTH PLACE IN THE TOP 14 AFTER LAST WEEK’S STARTLING WIN IN TOULOUSE; A TEAM RUN BY A TRIUMVIRATE OF IRISHMEN – HEADED BY ‘RUGBY PIG’ BERNARD JACKMAN – WHO’RE DETERMINED TO SHAKE UP FRENCH RUGBY.

Historically, Wild Geese were seventeenth century Irish Jacobites, émigrés who fled Ireland after the abdication of James II to fight in the French army. These days, though, the Irish head to France to run rugby teams; Andrew Farley, once a kingpin at Connacht; Mike Prendergast, Limerick to his lips and Leinsterman Bernard Jackman: between them the Wild Geese of FC Grenoble.

‘I think the French like what Irish rugby does with limited resources and that’s why we fit in,’ says Bernard Jackman. ‘Certainly limited resources are what we’ve no shortage of here. Plus we don’t come in and start telling them that everything they’re doing is wrong. I think it’s easy for foreigners to come in and criticise everything but we try to find a balance without losing the French culture and the French passion. In our core leadership group, five of the seven are French and that’s by design. It’d be very easy to lose the dressing room or at least the French half of it.’

Four years ago Bernard Jackman was coaching Clontarf in the Ulster Bank League; two years ago Mike Prendergast was a player/coach at Young Munster. Suddenly the two of them – Head Coach and Backs Coach – are at the helm of one of the hottest teams in the Top 14 and offering the French a little Irish savoir-faire.

‘We’re trying to being in some detail and some Irish cunning to the game plan,’ says Mike Prendergast, ’and I think the players have bought into that. If you look at Toulon they’re a structured team and if you look at Clermont Auvergne as well, they’re the same. And from our point of view that was something we wanted to do; put a bit of detail on the game.’

Detail is Bernard Jackman’s middle name, which why you’ll find him groveling around in the car park with thirty water bottles trying to explain the finer points of the team’s new defensive system to twelve shivering forwards. Indeed he started out here four years ago as a correspondence coach, running the defence from Ireland via email; this when Grenoble where chasing promotion from Pro D2 and Jackman’s coaching ambitions were effectively hanging on one roll of the dice.

‘I knew if Grenoble got up I was in and if they didn’t I was out,’ he says. ‘I think what’d happened was that they’d spent all their coaching budget so there was no money to bring in anyone else full time. So I was given six weeks to sort out a new defence system and monitor it via email and video clips, coming back and forth once a month to do lots of one on ones with players. And fortunately for me, we conceded just seventeen tries that season and got promoted.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘In fact, maybe I should go back to the coaching the side by email. I’ll tell you what, our defence isn’t nearly as good now as it was then.’

There are any number of reasons why Grenoble ‘works’ but shrewd recruitment is perhaps the key. This isn’t quite a home for waifs and strays but certainly there are plenty here – from France and beyond – who’ve found true love and good luck hard to come by; your Wisniewskis, MacLeods, Heguys and Aplons to name just four. It’s a shopping strategy that ticks all the boxes.

‘Money is the obvious factor,’ says Jackman, ‘because we don’t have any; certainly we don’t have the cash to sign the big names. The second thing is location, because Grenoble’s not a sexy place to live. French players and foreigners would prefer to live down south near the sea. And thirdly we target the so-called cast-offs because we want to get guys with a point to prove.’

‘But money’s the key. Our most expensive player is earning, what, 250,000 a year? Seriously, there are plenty of players in France on double that and plenty more in the 350,000 to 400,000 bracket. We don’t spend what we don’t have because the club over-reached itself a few years back and nearly went to the wall.’

 

‘Plus, size costs you money: that’s the reality of the Top14. So the biggest players – literally the biggest players – get paid the most. And not only can’t we afford to recruit those sorts of players but that’s not the type of game we want to play; we want to play a high-tempo ball-in-hand style where we do what everyone else isn’t doing, which is move the ball around exploiting mismatches.’

 

Jackman is a compulsive listen, assuming rugby’s your thing. Mind you, if it isn’t, you’re lumbered because, by all accounts, he talks about little else.

 

‘Yes, well you’re struggling if your chat’s not oval-shaped,’ says Team Manager, Andrew Farley. ‘He used to talk a bit about horse racing when I first knew him but not for long. I know friends of his who occasionally refuse to take his calls simply because they don’t want to spend half-an-hour talking about rugby. To be honest, I’ve done it myself.’

 

‘He’s an obsessive,’ says Mike Prendergast, ‘just a rugby pig. I’m trying to think of the last time I had a conversation with him that wasn’t about rugby. I don’t think I ever have. Mind you I’ve only been here eighteen months.’

 

On long bus journeys – and there are plenty of those in this league – Jackman’s nose is deep in his laptop watching rugby videos. Or else he’s guzzling books on sports psychology and ‘autobiographies by anyone who’s been successful’. In off-seasons he pays his own way to New Zealand to spend time with the Chiefs, the Hurricanes and the Highlanders or – last season – with the Reds in Australia and the Stormers in South Africa. He eats rugby and he sleeps rugby. It is why the Good Lord made him.

‘My dad’s a hard worker,’ says Jackman. ‘He drives a truck for seventy hours a week and he’s relentless. I think when I was in my twenties I lacked that but then I had a year with no contract and I had to get a job as a medical rep and that woke me up. And now I’ve got a chance here, I don’t want to mess it up.’

‘Besides, I think the players need to know that I’m restless, you know, that I’m looking for those one per centers that are going to make us all better. It reassures them. And it’s not just me. ROG (Ronan O’Gara) is the same at Racing. He and I rub brains a lot on the phone. Generally the way the schedule is, we’re about two weeks ahead of them so he rings me and we’ll discuss how so-and-so attacks or key guys to watch out for and swap some intelligence. Actually I reckon I’m learning more from him than he’s learning from me but it’s good to have another voice or opinion from someone who’s in the same league and who’s working in a good club.’

Jackman the player – the billiard ball hooker – won nine caps for Ireland and a Heineken Cup with Leinster in 2009. But even he wonders at what cost. There was a point towards the end of his career when his knees were so shot he had to come down the stairs on his backside every Monday morning; worse still, in his last three seasons he suffered twenty concussions before the doctors – finally – refused to stamp his ticket.

‘It wasn’t great for Sinead to see me bumping down the stairs on my arse,’ he admits, ‘ideally, she wouldn’t have seen that. But I was desperate to win another Heineken Cup. That’s all I wanted so, in my own mind, it was just ‘get to the end of the season’. But then ego takes over, doesn’t it, and I wanted a contract for the year after that too but – thankfully now – the doc wouldn’t pass me. I think most players are like that, though; they have tunnel vision. I’m annoyed with myself about the attitude I had to the concussions, to be honest, because that was stupid but the rest of my body I have no regrets about.’

So how far can FC Grenoble go? Historically this is a town famous for gloves, resisting Nazis and the 1968 Winter Olympics: now, though, it’s now one of the nouveau-venus of French club rugby as the provincial south-west – Dax, Agen, Biarritz, Beziers, Narbonne – give way to the France’s metropolitan Middle Earth – Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Grenoble, the last with its stupendous Stade des Alps arena, a 20,000 seat amphitheatre where ‘l’esprit de clocher’ rings as loudly as anywhere in France.

‘Actually the stadium was built by the town for the football team but they went down, we went up and the mayor gave the place to us,’ says Andrew Farley. ‘And it really rocks because it’s a closed in stadium and the noise is unbelievable. You know when there’s been a good decision or a bad decision in this place, there’s no doubt about that.’

Grenoble, you suspect, are going to have to get to wherever they’re going long-haul and in economy but, for now, they’re eminently sustainable and playing some eye-catching rugby; indeed only Toulon’s backs have scored more than Grenoble’s this season to the private despair of the Head Coach.

‘All our kids go to the game and they’re a nightmare because they’re running around the Stade des Alpes with all the other kids,’ says Jackman, ‘so just to make it more interesting for them, I said, ‘look for every try Alipate Ratini scores – they love Rattu – I’ll give you ten Euro each.’ And of course he’s scored ten so far in the T14 and one in the Amlin Cup. He’s a machine, the fastest player I’ve ever seen but I’m going to have to find a way to drop him.’

At some point Ireland will call and the wild geese will fly home but, for the time being, life in France is good. ‘From my family’s point of view, I’d love be successful in Ireland,’ says Jackman, ‘but to do that I want to leave France with a reputation so if a club looks for a coach in four or five years time they’ll think of me. Besides, the kids love it here, what with the skiing and everything, and they’re already bi-lingual. They’ve even got French accents, which is one thing I’ll never have. And next week we’re all off to Italy for a few days ahead of the game against Rovigo. Mind you, the phone’ll still be on. Just in case.’

05 DECEMBER 2014

 

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