Even though he’s between coaching jobs after parting ways with the Dragons, Bernard Jackman is still a man in demand at home and abroad, writes Kieran Shannon
For a guy in between jobs, Bernard Jackman is very busy these days.
With the Six Nations about to consume so much of the public interest for the next while, he’s been asked to do a lot of media work such as co-commentating Ireland’s games on RTÉ Radio. Considering he studied Japanese in college back when he had hair, he’s likely to be in even more demand come the World Cup, if he so wishes.
He’s done a few corporate speaking gigs, spoken to a county GAA team and been asked to come on board as a backroom member with another he’s currently having discussions with — as well as mulling over a couple of job offers abroad outside of France, England and the PRO14.
But for the most part, beyond reflecting on what his next move should be and what he learned from his challenging time with the Dragons, he’s been spending some precious make-up time with loved ones and catching up with some old friends.
The week before last, he met up with his former Leinster teammate Eoin Reddan who is literally flying it, having opted to work in aviation and sales instead of going down the coaching path as Jackman has. Finally, his weekends are his own.
Last Tuesday was spent with a certain Corkman who in town for the week, as Jackman collected Ronan O’Gara at his hotel and brought him out for coffee.
At first they might strike you as an odd couple; one the personification of Corkness and Munster who seethed at even the prospect of being on the bench; the other, a Leinster man, albeit a culchie from Carlow cattle-dealer stock who, as a frequent third-choice hooker, would have been thrilled to even make the Irish matchday bench.
Yet they clicked during Jackman’s time on the fringes of the Irish squad, having a shared interest in horse racing, and the bond further cemented itself as coaches brave enough to forsake home comforts to take the big bold leap into the weird and wonderful world that is French rugby.
They did their Pro Licence together. It was over 12 weeks in Paris — 25 coaches in all were on it, with O’Gara and Jackman being the only two foreigners. All the coaches not living in or from Paris stayed in the hotel onsite — only for Jackman to be the exception again.
“ROG insisted I stay with him and Jess and the kids in their home. I mean, he insisted! It was so generous of him, to recognise I was away from my wife and kids and instead of me being bored in a hotel with nothing to do after lectures finished at six [o’clock], I could hang out with him and his family.”
That’s why the coffee was on Jackman last Tuesday. And typical of when they meet up, it was more than mugs that were lifted from the table — the salt and pepper were moving around as well, as they dissected Ireland V England.
“ROG has a very high emotional IQ,” says Jackman. “He gets players and can get inside their minds. And he has a great brain. He might start out saying very little about a game, but then he’ll come up with one or two little insights and you’ll go: ‘Yeah, you’re right there.’
“Like, the England game showed up — tactical kicking is gone.
“The way ROG used to play, kicking to the corners, well, the way teams were defending in recent years, it was impossible to do that. Even when he was playing, it was difficult to do, you needed to be incredibly accurate — which he was, and he was able to see it. But the way defensive systems then changed and worked the backfield differently, even ROG would have struggled to find space; that 20m space at the back wasn’t there anymore.
“It’s back again now — but the problem is none of the 10s have the skillset or awareness to [go for] it. Between the 52nd and 62nd minute when it was still just 17-13 to England, Ireland tried to run it, but made no yards. England had 14 in the frontline, with their fullback in the middle of the field. It was crying out for that kick. Conor [Murray] couldn’t kick it; it couldn’t be a box-kick. It had to be off Johnny [Sexton]. But either Johnny didn’t see it or didn’t want to see it or just backed himself to outrun them.
“At some point [in the weeks ahead] Ireland will need to look for that kick.”
Naturally, talk turned away from the national team and to their own careers. O’Gara’s is progressing remarkably well, helping the Crusaders to the Super Rugby title just as he assisted Racing to a Top 14 title. Though O’Gara didn’t say it, Jackman can see him returning to the northern hemisphere in the not-too-distant future, possibly as a head coach in the French league.
In turn, O’Gara was pleased to see Jackman in such good spirits. Parting ways with the Welsh club a week before Christmas doesn’t appear to have affected his confidence or ambition to coach again, though O’Gara has advised that next time he may be wary about accepting such a poisoned chalice.
Of course, jokes Jackman, it’s easy for O’Gara to say — he’s Ronan bloody O’Gara! The rest of us haven’t a Racing Paris offering us a gig once we stop playing. But for sure, the thrust of O’Gara’s suggestion was sound. Jackman believes he’s a wiser coach for the experience.
The Dragons had been for sale for a year prior to the bailout from the Welsh Rugby Union and the recruitment of Jackman, finishing in the bottom four of the old PRO12 the previous six seasons and losing 18 of their 22 games in the 2016-2017 season. In Jackman’s first season they would lose 17. While it hardly constituted progress, the vision was that their graph would rise in accordance with an agreed budget. Last summer though, he’d discover the projected finance wasn’t forthcoming.
To understand the Dragons’ financial difficulties, you have to first appreciate their identity issues. The club is based in Gwent which, in a way, you could liken to Munster — a real rugby hotbed, taking in the valleys and coalmines. You know how they used to say that the ideal Kerry team was a combination of west Kerry backs and dainty townie forwards from Tralee? Well, with Wales it used to be the hardy forwards from the Gwent region and then Llanelli for the flair and the backs.
The only problem was the big smoke in the region, Newport, has traditionally had more in common with Dublin than a Cork. Just as generations of players from Shannon felt it was much easier for a chap from Wanderers to get an Irish cap, the clubs in the valleys would resent how the big smoke and bucks of Newport poached their talent. When the game went regional and pro, Newport and its stadium Rodney Parade became Gwent’s base. Rooting for a club operating out of there was just too much of a stretch, too artificial, for too many followers in the valleys.
“It’s not just the Dragons,” says Jackman. “None of the Welsh clubs have a real strong identity. It’s a big reason why the Scarlets last year have been the only Welsh side to reach a European semi-final. A Peter O’Mahony grows up wanting to play for Munster as much as he wants to play for Ireland. The Welsh players use regional rugby to play for Wales. That Welsh jersey is gold. And they have a massive affinity for their local club because they grew up with it. The Welsh Premiership, the equivalent of the UBL [AIL], is being shown on BBC Wales on Friday nights now. So that’s actually given the club game a boost, but it’s hurting the PRO14. The average wage in our region was less than £40,000 a year. The money is not there to go support both your club on a Friday and your region on a Saturday.”
When Jackman inherited the Dragons job in the summer of 2017, they had no academy, but under his supervision, they established one, ploughing in £100,000 to start it. But then the other regional teams who already had academies were all looking for another £100,000 as well. For every pound the WRU was putting into the Dragons was costing them four.
It meant that heading into season two, Jackman was only given 75% of the budget he had initially been promised. With resources so stretched, relations became strained as well. Welsh rugby is committed to keeping four teams up until 2021, but Jackman fears that after that it will be reduced to three, with the Dragons most likely to make way.
“To be fair, everybody had the best of intentions. The people who hired me didn’t know this was the way it would turn out. I was sold a vision that by 2020 the Dragons would be getting equal funding [to the other three regions]. So in the first year we played a load of young fellas from the region. If I had to do it again, I would have been more focused on the short term. I wouldn’t have played as many youngsters and tried to get more wins to keep the wolf from the door.”
What else would he change? He’d have done more hands-on coaching, though with everything else he had on those hands of his, it would have been hard to squeeze in. There was no HR department, so he had to do most of the recruitment, even drawing up contracts. Before him they had just one physio and one S&C coach, no sports psych or nutritionist, something every other PRO14 team would take for granted. He even found himself booking the team’s hotels — everything short of painting the stands like English football managers would in the 70s.
You just dig in,” he says, “because when you’re in it, f*** it, there’s no one else to do it.”
So where was the job satisfaction? Where was the kick in it? He took pride in some of the players making a point in the media after his departure that he still had the dressing room, that they understood the constraints he was working under — the team has won just one game since his departure and only last week, the sport psych was cut to save costs.
“And bringing good people in and working with them, that was the best part of the job,” he says — only to add that’s nearly the worst thing now about the Dragons project. “There were people who uprooted where they were and moved their families purely on this vision we had of putting the Dragons on the map. Now they’re stuck there. That’s shit. I feel bad about that.”
On that though, he thanks the heavens he didn’t bring over his own family. It was fine to do so in Grenoble with the age the kids were then. But Ava is now 12, Ben, 10. They didn’t need the upheaval of leaving their good schools in Dublin.
“My job is so nomadic that if they were to follow me everywhere, you’re talking about potentially five or six different countries. It was hard being away from them, but it was way better than them being over there [in Newport] with me.
“Wednesdays would be our day off so I’d fly home to Dublin most Tuesday nights. I wouldn’t get back until about 10.30pm but the kids would still be up, reading books, to see me, and Sinead would be mad keen to chat — but I’d be just so bollixed I’d be: ‘I need to go to bed.’ I was here for a day, but I really wasn’t bloody here. But if they had been over with me in Wales they would hardly have seen me either. I’d be going in to work at 6am and not coming back to the flat until 10[pm].”
That’s why he’s loving and savouring this time now, being around to do the school run and the homework. And this enforced sabbatical is also time to reflect on and appreciate the coaches and setups he’s been involved with through the years.
Like Warren Gatland, the former Connacht coach who persuaded him 22 years ago to postpone that degree in marketing and Japanese because he might be among the first and last 20 Irish players to be offered a professional contract.
And Declan Kidney who he feels is “completely underestimated and misunderstood”. Long before it was fashionable or articulated, he practised the player-centred approach. Jackman was twice a travelling reserve during the 2009 Grand Slam campaign, both in Murrayfield and Wales. Back then as the 24th man, you weren’t even entitled to a match ticket. Yet the morning after the day before in Cardiff, Kidney rang him to make sure he and Sinead were at the homecoming on Dawson Street and saw to it that travelling reserves like him were given their Grand Slam bonus like everyone else.
Then there was the coach who helped him win a European Cup with Leinster that same year. In his subsequent autobiography,
, Jackman would declare on the opening page that “Everyone is afraid of Michael Cheika” and that he personally hated him at that moment. Now? He’s looking forward to shaking the man’s hand at the big 10-year reunion bash Leinster are putting on in May. He understands why Cheika was pissed that he didn’t want to risk injury in the final weeks of his contract. Wouldn’t he have risked it if it was another European final instead of just a Pro12 final?
“I haven’t seen him since the book. I’m sure he wouldn’t be happy with it. I wouldn’t be happy with it. But now I can see how he drove me and how he turned Leinster around. Joe [Schmidt] is a genius, but it was easy for Joe to come in after Cheika. If Joe had come in when Cheika had come in, he would have had no chance. The culture was horrendous.”
Even for meals, the rock stars of the squad would gravitate solely to the rock stars, unconsciously or consciously failing to mingle with others. As much as Brian O’Driscoll would talk about wanting to be challenged and that they would win nothing until someone did, no one would.
Until one day a young fringe player reared up in training. Long before Schmidt famously asked if a world-class player could still have caught a poor pass, Johnny Sexton pulled him up for one he’d thrown himself.
“Johnny at this stage wasn’t playing, Cheiks was playing [an Aussie] called Sean Byrne ahead of him. But he turned to Drico and said: ‘What the f*** was that?!’ The rest of us were like: ‘Oomph! Drico’s got what he said he wanted, but how’s he going to react?’ But in fairness Brian said: ‘Yeah, it was a shit pass by me.’ Everyone quickly moved on from it then but it sent the message: ‘OK, if we can challenge Drico to be better, we can challenge a Felipe [Contepomi].’”
Sexton’s another old comrade that Jackman hopes to meet up again for coffee. They met up often in the old days when Sexton was the frustrated young apprentice and Jackman was the old bull who’d seen it all. While Sexton had no doubt he’d make it somewhere, he was doubting if it would be in Leinster. But Jackman was able to let him see: Johnny, your career isn’t going to be all like this [an upward diagonal line]. Jackman had been dropped from and recalled to the Irish squad over 20 times. Setbacks fuel resilience.
That’s why he expects Sexton along with Conor Murray to be more like their old selves over the coming weeks. And why he himself hopes and plans to coach again.
Sometimes you get thrown a shit pass. Sometimes you throw one yourself. You just need to learn from it and move on to the next play.