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'Gatty rang me and offered a deal, but the problem was I was going to Japan'

Bernard Jackman recalls the beginning of his professional career with Connacht.

BERNARD JACKMAN FACES Connacht for the first time as a head coach at Stade des Alpes on Saturday, but the team Grenoble will welcome to their home patch is a far cry from the side the ex-hooker played for in his own career.

Jackman’s professional playing days, which brought him nine Ireland caps, a Heineken Cup winner’s medal and Celtic League success, began in Galway in 1997.

Grenoble's Head Coach Bernard Jackman Jackman's Grenoble side welcome Connacht to France on Saturday.

The Carlow native had been playing with Clontarf in the All-Ireland League while studying International Marketing and Japanese at Dublin City University, and was set to move to Japan for the final year of this three-year degree.

Eddie O’Sullivan was on the verge of becoming the new head coach of Connacht at the time, but when his deal fell through, Warren Gatland was called in.

“Eddie was supposed to be the coach and he had his squad identified to a large degree” recalls Jackman. “Rugby was just going pro and there were five full-time contracts for each province and fifteen part-time deals. At the last minute, negotiations between Eddie and Connacht broke down.

“Gats had been over on a gap year as a player/coach with Galwegians. He was very much the coach and only played when they were stuck, but I was playing for Clontarf and we played against them in Division 2 of the All-Ireland League. He came off the bench as a hooker against me, back in December, and I’d gone ok.

“So last minute, Eddie going to Connacht fell through, Gats had been coaching Galwegians and he was given the job. He had to put the squad together on short notice. Billy Mulcahy was the first-choice hooker but he needed another hooker and I don’t know if he remembered me from that game or what.

“He rang Popey [Brent Pope, coach of Clontarf at the time] anyway and Popey said I was worth a punt.”

Keen on continuing with his plan to move to Japan and complete his degree, Jackman was initially unsure. Rugby at that time was still lurching its way into professionalism and there were no guarantees.

“Gats rang me and offered me a deal, but the problem was that I was going to Japan,” says Jackman. “It wasn’t a financial thing, it was just a part-time contract but Warren was big into education because he was a teacher himself.

“He said, ‘I think it’s important you get your degree, but no one knows if rugby is going to take off or not. If it does take off and you’re away for a year, it’s going to be very hard to get back in. If it doesn’t take off and it’s only professional for a year, you’d be one of only a handful of Irish players who were ever pros.’”

Jackman and Gatland came to an agreement that the hooker could remain based in Dublin, finished his degree in DCU and commuting to Connacht’s gym and pitch sessions.

Bernard Jackman 11/12/1999 Jackman carries in a 1999 clash with Toulon. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

At that point in 1997/98, the provinces played only 10 to 12 games a season, with players featuring heavily for their clubs sides too.

There was still an inter-provincial championship – Connacht won one of their three derby games that season – while Gatland’s men featured in the second-ever edition of the Challenge Cup.

To their major credit, Connacht emerged top of a pool also containing Northampton, Bordeaux Bègles and Nice. Five wins from those six pool games left them with an away quarter-final against Agen that they lost 40-27.

Alongside Jackman in the squad for that defeat to Agen were left wing Nigel Carolan [now Connacht's academy manager and Ireland U20s coach], out-half Eric Elwood [Connacht's domestic rugby manager and former head coach], centre Mervyn Murphy [an analyst in Joe Schmidt's Ireland staff] , fullback Willie Ruane [current Connacht CEO], and lock and captain Graham Heaslip [older brother of Jamie].

“In those days it was the very start of professionalism,” remembers Jackman. “Our gym sessions were in Galway, but our pitch sessions used to be in Athlone because so many of the team were working in Dublin.

“We had a great year. Gatty was brilliant; he was really good and his genius is at getting that group feel-good factor, getting the group mindset right and he got us on track.

“We beat Northampton home and away, beat Bordeaux away and got to the Challenge Cup quarter-finals. We had a couple of other scalps and Gatty obviously got the Ireland job off the back of that.”

Jackman’s own one-year part-time deal was coming to an end in that summer of 1998 and he had hopes of a move to his home province, Leinster.

However, a bizarre IRFU ruling – founded on completely the opposite thinking to that of current performance director David Nucifora – prevented Jackman from playing for Leinster.

“It was crazy – there was a rule that you weren’t allowed to move from one province to another. I wanted to go back to Leinster, but I was basically blocked! I couldn’t go back.

Connacht 16/8/1997 Warren Gatland coach © INPHO / Patrick Bolger Gatland had some great days with Connacht. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

“It was so provinces weren’t poaching players from other provinces, and it only lasted two or three months. It came in just when I was looking to go back, when my contract was up.”

Instead, Jackman remained with Connacht as another Kiwi, Glenn Ross – a man who had coached Gatland as a schoolboy in Hamilton Boys’ High School in their native New Zealand – took over.

Ross couldn’t bring about the same results out west as Gatland had and Connacht failed to progress from the redesigned Challenge Cup pool stages, while they won just two of their six inter-provincial games.

Jackman, who had continued to play club rugby with Clontarf, grew weary of the commuting and admits he “didn’t really enjoy” that season under Ross as Connacht struggled.

Having graduated with his degree from DCU, he was more than ready to accept an offer from Sale Sharks in 1999 to move to England and become a genuine professional rugby player.

“That was great because suddenly I was full time and the Premiership was like it is now; a really good competition. The S&C was good, we had real games every week. I did two years there and then I said I’d go back to Ireland.”

Steve Diamond had been eager to keep him in England, even strongly suggesting that the Irishman’s future lay at loosehead prop rather than hooker, but Jackman was intent on playing in Ireland and pushing for international honours.

A deal to finally join Leinster in 2001 fell through, however, and Jackman was left playing in the AIL with Clontarf. Having turned 26 at that stage, the Tullow man gave himself one year to return to the professional game or call it quits.

Remarkably, Clontarf’s superb season and Jackman’s impressive part in it meant Eddie O’Sullivan – back in Ireland as the national team head coach after his first stint in the US – included him in the Six Nations training squad in 2002. Unsurprisingly, Jackman’s one-year target bore fruit.

“At the end of that season, I had offers from Leinster and Connacht. Eddie was Ireland coach by now and he convinced me to go back to Connacht. Shane Byrne was in Leinster, Frankie Sheahan was in Munster and Paul Shields was in Ulster.

Bernard Jackman 3/4/2004 Jackman during his second stint with Connacht. Source: ©INPHO

“In fairness to Eddie, he brought me into an Irish squad in that Six Nations even though I didn’t have a contract, I was just playing for Tarf. He showed a bit of faith in me and he said that for him it was better to have four guys playing every week, and I went back again.”

Jackman worked under South African Steph Nel and then Michael Bradley over the following three seasons, as the province had mixed results in the new Celtic League and managed to reach two Challenge Cup semi-finals.

There were horror shows among the mini-successes, and Jackman was only capped for Ireland after he finally did sign for his home province of Leinster in 2005.

Connacht were largely still the whipping boys of Irish rugby in those years under Nel and Bradley, with Jackman underlining that the current iteration of the western province is streets ahead of what he experienced.

“There’s really good people down there now and I think it’s really important that Ireland have four really good provinces,” says Jackman of Lam’s squad.

“I think it’s great to see the increase in their fan base and that’s been driven by the fact that the team are playing great rugby and they’re getting results. Pat has done a good job there.”

Jackman was with Connacht when the IRFU proposed consigning the province to the dustbin in 2003, before a public protest and the threat of a player strike convinced the union to change their intentions.

The hooker remembers those tough days, but also points out that the IRFU have been brilliant for Connacht in recent seasons as they have grown into a genuine force.

“Three years ago when Pat came in, the IRFU gave him the same amount of S&C staff, they gave him resources for video analysis, software, nutritionists and obviously assistant coaches,” says Jackman.

“That’s helped them massively and the big thing is that the Connacht underage system is not just being competitive, but winning U20 championships. Players from that underage structure are coming through to be first-team players.

Pat Lam Lam is doing a superb job in Connacht. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Whereas before, when I was there, most of the players were coming in from other provinces. That’s ok, but the long-term future for any club or province is to be producing players in-house and Connacht are getting there. Nigel Carolan and the academy, where Jimmy Duffy [now Lam's forwards coach] was, are doing a great job. It’s been a huge transition.”

Jackman is enthused by Connacht’s rise, but now he is the man plotting to give them a reality check. He moved on to Leinster in 2005 and enjoyed great success, shifting into the world of coaching impressively and being appointed head coach of Grenoble in 2013.

There are similarities in these two clubs’ stories. As recently as 2006, FCG were playing in Fédérale 1 – the third tier of French rugby – and several of the current squad featured for the club in the Pro D2 on their path back to the premier division.

Jackman has helped Grenoble establish themselves as a genuine Top 14 club and his promotion to head coach has also seen them play some of the most effective and attacking rugby in France.

Their targets this season were a Challenge Cup quarter final and a top-eight finish in the Top 14. They have achieved the first, of course, while the second is looking extremely likely as they currently sit eighth and have a manageable run-in to the end of the season.

“Everything else now is a bonus, but we want to get those bonuses,” says Jackman. “We want to try and win it [the Challenge Cup] if we can, we want to play in the Champions Cup next year.

“We want to be playing in the barrages [the Top 14 knock-outs] in the middle of June, as it happens in France! We have worked hard in the last year and a half to try and change the mindset and create a new culture.

“I found it frustrating to start previous seasons with the mindset of ‘staying up’ and it meant that when we passed a certain amount of points, we weren’t able to sustain the effort after getting safe.

“We have a much more positive outlook now. We’re not totally results-driven, but we’re looking to get better every week. We’ve had more rotation and guys are coming in and doing well having been out of the group for a week or two.”

Sounds rather familiar.

Bernard Jackman Grenoble beat Connacht in a pre-season friendly last summer. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Grenoble’s budget is certainly bigger than that of Connacht’s, but the reality is that their spending power is dwarfed by other Top 14 clubs. FCG’s player wage budget is vastly inferior to their rivals’, but Jackman says he enjoys studying the market in detail, searching for bargains and players overlooked by others.

He has had real success in that area, but points out that – similarly to how Connacht have gone about their business – his duty now is to bring homegrown players through.

“The next job is to start bringing through guys from our academy,” says Jackman. “This is the first year we had guys involved with the France U20s. We had three who got capped during the Six Nations and it’s massively important to make sure they transition into first-team players, as well as other guys in that age group.

“That’s the next step for French clubs, to produce JIFF players who are formed in the club.”

Jackman’s contract, along with those of assistant Mike Prendergast and the rest of his coaching team, expires in the summer of 2017 and he is likely to be in demand. Grenoble will be keen to retain him and Jackman remains hugely excited by the prospects for the Top 14 club’s future.

More immediately, a visit from his old province will bring back a few good memories and present a very different challenge for his Grenoble team.

“It’s Connacht and there’s so many people coming over,” says Jackman of his excitement for Saturday’s game. “It’s a test to how we adapt to their style of play. We’re not the biggest team, but we’ve become good at adapting and muscling up to those bigger Top 14 sides.

“Now we’ve got to see how we adapt to a team that plays high tempo. We don’t come up against a team like this very often. Connacht don’t play like most of the French teams, so it’s a different challenge for us.

“They come up with two or three different strike plays every game too, so it’s about how well we adapt in our defensive systems to deal with that threat. It’ll be a good game, it’ll be an entertaining one.”

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Murray Kinsella

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