Top 14 returns as Jackman's Grenoble look to homegrown future

The Irishman is now director of rugby at the French club.

THE PRO12 SIDES have two more weeks until their league season begins, but the juggernaut that is the Top 14 lurches back into life this evening with some mouthwatering ties.

Ian Madigan makes his Bordeaux debut against a Racing 92 side that includes James Hart, while Paddy Butler and James Coughlan start in Pau’s visit to Castres.

Up in Paris, Chris Farrell is at outside centre as Grenoble get their season underway against 2015 champions Stade Français [KO 7.45pm Irish time].

Bernard Jackman arrives fore the game Jackman is now in the top job at Grenoble. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The major Irish influence at Grenoble is off the pitch, however, particularly now that former Leinster and Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman has been promoted to the position of director of rugby on a contract that runs until 2019.

After two years as head coach of the club, Jackman has taken over from previous director of rugby Fabrice Landreau.

Jackman guided much of what Grenoble did over the past two seasons, but he is now the man steering the ship. FCG is his operation and the responsibility excites the 40-year-old.

“I had influence over the training sessions before, but there was often a difference of opinion about how we should play,” says Jackman of his promotion.

“When that happens, it’s easy for players to have an excuse – sometimes there’s not that clarity that you need. If you want to play a certain way, it needs to be 100% clear what’s expected.”

No longer are there two voices for Grenoble’s players. Jackman picks the team, plans the club’s training schedule, decides on the content of the sessions, and has full control over recruitment.

He will also have to deal with the club’s board, who have laid out a clear goal for him over the coming years.

While Grenoble have been as reliant on foreign players as others in recent times, they have now set themselves the target of 50% of their squad being composed of academy graduates by 2020. Grow from within; so goes the new thinking.

“If you want that to happen in 2020, you’d better start it now!” says Jackman with a laugh.

The project kicked off late last season, as Grenoble blooded a number of young homegrown players in the latter rounds of the Top 14, also driving their JIFF [joueurs issus des filières de formation] quotas at the same time.

Pat Lam and  Bernard Jackman Jackman with Pat Lam before last season's thriller in the Challenge Cup. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Jackman had 12 academy players with his senior squad for the entirety of this summer’s pre-season, while seven more had chances in the friendly games.

“One of the biggest problems in France is that we give the players false expectations as youngsters, that the level they’re at is good enough,” explains Jackman.” The beauty of the Irish game, New Zealand game, South African game, is that the funnel is very narrow at the top.

“By the time you’re 18 or 19, you’ve been tested and if you don’t have the mental strength, and a certain level of physical and technical ability, you’re not going to get into an academy. In France, it’s a little bit of a laissez-faire attitude.

“You can stay in the academy until you’re 23. Realistically, that’s too long. By 19 or 20 you should be able to go toe to toe with senior guys in training and play a certain amount of games – apart from tight-five forwards maybe.

“Those young guys who got game times at the end of last season, when they came back into pre-season they were different animals. They realised how hard it was going to be.”

France U20 international trio Mickaël Capelli, Etienne Fourcade and Pierre Mignot are among the promising players pushing into the senior ranks, while hooker Loick Jammes is already part of the French rugby union’s ‘Développement’ list.

Jackman knows there is major work ahead over the coming seasons in balancing the 50% homegrown objective with ensuring he can win as many games as possible, but he believes the club is off on the right foot.

The growth mindset Jackman brings to the youth side of the club is reflected with the senior players too. Remarkably, 24 of Grenoble’s players are out of contract at the end of this season, a potentially tricky situation to manage.

Even if there are to be a raft of departures in 2017, Jackman is keen to ensure that everyone buys into the mentality of constant improvement.

“Come January time, I could have 16 or 17 guys coming to the end of their contracts who know they are leaving,” says Jackman. “It’s not ideal in terms of forward planning, so I have to get the guys onside and get them believing that it’s about their personal development.

Jonathan Wisniewski kicks a penalty Jonathan Wisniewski is the new FCG captain. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Whether they are going to be here in a year’s time, it’s about improving their career opportunities, or improving to be here.

“I want to create an environment where guys have that mindset of improvement and looking to get better everyday. That’s what we’re trying to sell. We’re competing with each other and we have a long-term goal that we want to get better.”

One way in which Jackman sees his side improving is in how they use the ball. Grenoble’s attack has been in top six in the French league in terms of scoring for the past two seasons, with their 2-4-2 shape proving highly aesthetically pleasing too.

However, Jackman is keen to see a more flexible version of Grenoble this season.

“We have probably overplayed our hand a little bit at times in the past, becoming a little bit predictable in terms of keeping the ball in hand,” says Jackman.

“I’ve done quite a bit of analysis on teams like the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Saracens, who have a better balance about when to turn the opposition or when to go to the air. The Highlanders in 2014/15 and the Hurricanes this year, that variety of kicking game, but kicking game within a good shape.

“I’m talking about the ability to hurt teams with attacking kicks, kick-passes more so than exiting and kicking everything away in your own half. It’s the ability to have the field covered and keep the back three honest.

“It’s having the balance and that will have opposition respecting us, respecting their backfield more and that will make it easier to get good gainline with our carries when we decide to keep the ball.”

Another primary focus has been the set-piece, an area where Jackman readily admits Grenoble have come up short too often. Having a powerful set-piece is not only important to success on the field, but also capturing the hearts of the Grenoble public.

Aaron Dundon Aaron Dundon has come in as forwards coach. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“The history of Grenoble is very much of a team dominated by their forwards,” says Jackman. “If we score a try from our 22 here, we get applause. If we score a try from a maul, the crowd go berserk. It’s about understanding a little bit of the history of the club as well.”

Former Leinster hooker Aaron Dundon has come on board as forwards coach, making a particularly pleasing impact on the scrum, while the signing of Aly Muldowney from Connacht has already proven to be as important as Jackman felt it might be.

The 33-year-old’s passing and decision-making skills will slot ideally into Grenoble’s attacking structures, but Muldowney – who also starts against Stade Français tonight – brings other attributes to the table.

“We’ve lacked that dominant lineout figure that say Ulster have in Franco van der Merwe, Leinster have in Devin Toner, Munster had in Paul O’Connell for years.

“We’ve had a lot of good second rows, but not dominant lineout leaders. Aly is probably quite unusual in that he can scrummage as a tighthead lock, yet he’s a lineout leader. We’ve been playing the 2-4-2 for two years and he fits into that perfectly.

“Aly’s been really good and taken on responsibility. He’s calling lineouts in French with a Midlands accent! He missed a few calls in the first friendly but we’re working on that.”

There were only two further recruits for Grenoble this summer, but both were similarly brought on board for character strengths as well as their rugby ability.

Halfback David Mélé brings his years of experience from Perpignan, Leicester and Toulouse with him, while Fijian powerhouse Sisa Waqa is an intriguing from the NRL’s Canberra Raiders.

Connacht’s Aly Muldowney Muldowney makes his Top 14 debut this evening. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Even as he gets to grips with rugby union again, Waqa has already had influence on the younger squad members with his communication and professionalism. Jackman is firmly of the belief that the person is as important as the talent.

“Next year when we recruit, character is going to be the primary quality we look for,” says Jackman. “Our model is built around being incredibly fit and working hard. When we go out to recruit, we’re going to tell them that, not shy away from it.

“You can go to other French clubs and not work as hard as you’re going to work here, but we need to because we understand we’re competing with teams with bigger budgets and we have to find our niche and our areas we can better them.”

For now, Jackman has important weeks before him. The results of a poll of Top 14 coaches in Midi Olympique recently revealed that many of Jackman’s rivals expect Grenoble to be relegated, but the Irishman has confidence in his players.

“I know we’re working in a far more efficient manner. When we get our best players on the paddock, we can go toe to toe with anyone. I want to see how we go over the next couple of months, but my plan is that in three years’ time we will be a top six club, every year.”

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