'I won't be surprised if Bernard Jackman gets the Leinster job'

Gio Aplon talks about life under the former Ireland hooker at Top 14 outfit Grenoble.

IT SPEAKS VOLUMES of the esteem in which Bernard Jackman is held by Leinster fans that barely a year after taking on his first head coaching role in the professional game, the former hooker is being linked with a return to his native province.

With Matt O’Connor having left his position at Leinster last week, the Grenoble boss is among the names being touted as possible replacements.

Gio Aplon Aplon at Thomond Park after the Baa-Baas captain's run yesterday. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Many have suggested that Jackman’s combination of winning history at Leinster, attacking coaching instincts and sheer ambition make him the ideal candidate to replace O’Connor.

We’ve seen and heard much of Jackman’s intelligent analysis and opinion on the game through his work with the media here in Ireland, enough to confirm that his rugby brain is as sharp as they come, but we see little of the ex-Ireland international in his day job.

With that in mind, the chance to sit down with Grenoble fullback Gio Aplon this week as he visits Ireland with the Barbarians offered insight into Jackman’s coaching talent.

The sense is that the 39-year-old still feels he has more work to do in France, with his contract at Grenoble running until 2017, but Aplon raves about Jackman’s quality.

A 17-times capped South Africa international, Aplon joined Grenoble last summer, just as Jackman was appointed head coach of the Top 14 club.

“I always say that Bernard has got the potential to coach Ireland one day,” says Aplon. “I think what Bernard did over the last 12 months, although maybe sometimes the result didn’t go our way, he did extremely well in terms of where the team was.

“For me, he’s a fantastic coach, not just on the coaching level but also on a personal level in how he deals with the players. I can see a bright future for him wherever’s he going or if he stays with Grenoble.

Bernard Jackman Jackman's coaching career started in Ireland with the likes of Clontarf. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I think he’s a fantastic coach and has lots of potential to go to the very top.”

Though disappointed that Jackman is being linked with a move back to Ireland, Aplon is unsurprised. He reckons Leinster would be picking a superb coach.

“Hopefully he doesn’t go for another year, because I’m still here for another year,” says Aplon. “He’s got a great rugby brain, the way he thinks about things, the way he goes about things and the hours he spends on the game.

“I won’t be surprised if Leinster calls him up to coach them, I think he’s really got the potential and the ability all round. Not just as a coach, but I think in rugby you also need to have a manager who understands the players.

“He understands the Irish game and he comes from Leinster, he’s been there. I won’t be surprised if he gets the job. I would be sad, but happy for him.”

While Grenoble endured a highly difficult second half to the Top 14 season, only securing their top-flight status on the final day of the campaign, they did win many plaudits for their attractive style of play.

Indeed, the likes of Clermont head coach Franck Azéma and others spoke of the difficulty of facing Grenoble’s multi-optioned attack.

“Bernard is very, very detailed but also a guy who doesn’t take any initiative away from the players,” explains Aplon. “His main objective is, in French terms, for us to play with French flair. He wants us to have that flair but also in a kind of system where you’re able to have that flair.

Ugo Moyne and Gio Aplon Aplon [right] with Ugo Monye in Limerick. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“Off the field, he’s a good manager and gets on really, really well with the players. He knows his way about the game. I think for me, you get coaches who are purely rugby-orientate but he’s got good balance and qualities on both sides.”

Also plying his trade in Grenoble’s coaching team is the former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast, who spent one season of his playing career with Bourgoin.

An ex-director of rugby at Young Munster, Prendergast joined Grenoble as a skills coach at first in 2013 before moving into the role of backs coach for the season just ended. He earns a similarly positive endorsement from Aplon.

“I think if you’re in France you understand the way things work there and how it’s different to the way we’re used to in Ireland and South Africa,” says the South African.

“Mike has brought a lot of that, giving the players the ownership of moves and also bringing his knowledge and experience from when he was playing.

“Although Mike is new, he’s really brought a new dimension. Together with Bernard, he wants us to express ourselves.”

Like Jackman and Prendergast, the 32-year-old Aplon is loving life in France after seven years with the Stormers in Super Rugby and even longer with Western Province at provincial level back in South Africa.

The only frustration was that tough second portion of the season that saw Grenoble drop from play-off contention and a shot at the Champions Cup to the bottom half of the league table.

aplon-flair (1) Aplon kick-starts a superb Grenoble try earlier this season.

Aplon points out that in the Top 14, a single win or defeat can mean a club shifting wildly up or down the table, but accepts that Grenoble will look for improvement in the second part of next season.

“I don’t think our squad is that big in comparison with other teams; you need to keep your squad fresh,” says Aplon. “Looking at the stats, we had about six players that were top of the table for ‘most minutes played’ in the Top 14 season.

“Towards the end, that wasn’t good for us in terms of keeping the guys fresh and going for the second half of the season. We only won one game in the second half of the season, I think, and that was the home game against Toulouse.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the game plan or the players, but the players are just getting tired with the league games and European games. It takes it out of the body!”

Despite 22 games himself, Aplon has found the energy to bring himself to Limerick with the Barbarians for a taste of the kind of rugby he loves.

Not that he hasn’t been getting that in France. Who knows, we might get a taste of Grenoble’s French flair from the elusive Aplon if and when he appears off the Baa-Baas bench this evening.

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