Bernard Jackman is a self-confessed rugby junkie and that’s why nobody was happier than he was when the pre-season began at his new club, the Dragons, earlier this month.
After six seasons in France coaching in the toughest league in the world, the former Connacht, Leinster and Ireland hooker is back in the PRO12, or soon to be PRO14, and looking to breathe new life and fire into the recently rescued Welsh region.
Had the WRU not taken them over this summer, the Dragons would have folded.
Quite a challenge, then, for Jackman, but one he is relishing — with a little help from his friends. A long-standing relationship with Lions and Wales head coach Warren Gatland got him an introduction to the Dragons’ new owners and he obviously impressed at the interview stage.
The two former hookers go back all the way to pre-professional era club matches in Connacht between Galwegians and Clontarf.
Gatland then began his climb up the coaching ladder, while Jackman forged a playing career that included nine Irish caps, a Heineken Cup win and a PRO12 title.
Jackman took his first steps into coaching at Clontarf before heading to Grenoble. He quickly rose through the ranks and was in charge of their march into the Top 14 and a Challenge Cup semi-final.
He lost his job earlier this year after the club’s major backer pulled out, the money evaporated and the players failed to deliver the goods, ending in relegation back to the PROD2.
There is no relegation in the PRO12 and for the Dragons, the only way is up. They finished one off the bottom last season and are currently re-packaging and rebranding themselves ahead of the new season.
New players (Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner are the big name signings), new pitch, new targets, and new coach.
The pressure is on, but that’s why Jackman is so pleased to have Gatland in his corner. A bond of mutual respect was forged between the two men many years ago and they have kept in touch ever since.
Gatland acted as a bit of a go-between between Jackman and the WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips after the Irishman found himself out of a job this summer and he wasn’t out of work for long.
“I have always stayed in contact with Warren and it was through him I had a couple of chats with Martyn Phillips. It’s going to be great to have Warren as a sounding board and to be able to tap into his expertise,” said Jackman.
“He gave me my first professional contract with Connacht and when he got the Ireland job he took me to South Africa as part of a big squad in 1998.
"Warren is a guy I would always ring for advice and he is going to come down with Rob Howley, Neil Jenkins, and Robin McBryde to do a bit of coaching at the Dragons.
“Everyone in Wales wants and needs the Dragons to be successful and I believe that if I can get the environment right, challenge the players to raise their standards and give them the right gameplan, that we will win more games.”
Having watched every video of the Dragons playing last season, Jackman made a few quick observations. The front five weren’t good enough and the fitness levels weren’t high enough. After two weeks of pre-season training, he has changed his opinion on one of those quickfire views.
“We have a huge amount of work to do with our front five. Our scrum was a big weakness last season. The scrum is a high priority because if we can’t implement change, there then we won’t be able to go where we want to go with our game plan,” said Jackman.
“When you are 11th in a league of 12 then everything is a high priority.
“There are certain things in which we need a drastic improvement — and quickly — because there isn’t really an area of the game in which we are in the top four.
“But after working with the players over the past few weeks, and having checked all the data, I must say I was wrong about their fitness levels.
“What I was seeing on the tapes was a team competing well for 60 minutes, but then dropping off.
“I thought that was down to fitness, but it wasn’t. The S&C at this club is very good and their fitness scores are right up there with the best of the other regions. There is still a lot of work to do in that area given the style of game we want to play, but it is not as big a concern.”
Jackman confesses to still trying to work out what a successful first season in Wales would look like. “I am very ambitious and I’m also very optimistic.”
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