Bernard Jackman: ‘In France, there is so much politics involved and guys there for selfish reasons’

Bernard Jackman could give you any number of reasons as to why he accepted the offer to coach the Newport Gwent Dragons.

Bernard Jackman: ‘In France, there is so much politics involved and guys there for selfish reasons’

The wooing from Warren Gatland and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) helped and there was the style with which the Scarlets won the Guinness PRO12 and the understanding that there was an inherent talent for attacking rugby throughout Wales.

There was the none-too-small realisation that his kids had been living away from Ireland for five years while he built his coaching career in Grenoble and that this was an opportunity to locate everybody closer to home.

On top of all that was the desire to move from France and into the sort of rugby culture that valued diligence and preparation over the laissez-faire approach he had faced in the Top 14.

His time at Grenoble delivered plenty of highs but it ended on a sour note amid reports of “war” in the dressing room after he banned puddings for dessert — the horror! — and complaints that his attacking ideas were too complicated.

None of which is to say he doesn’t value his time on the continent.

Jackman pitched his tent at the foothills of the French Alps as a consultant and ascended to the position of forwards coach and then head coach. He did it by promoting an exciting brand of play that is far from common amidst the drudgery of the Top 14.

He also learnt how to work with players, other coaches, a boardroom and the media in a foreign language and he got to feel the heat that comes with a club feeling financial strains and the manoeuvrings that infiltrate the game.

“In France, there is so much politics involved and so many guys who are there for selfish reasons,” he says.

Jackman did his coaching licence in France alongside Ronan O’Gara and the week set aside for game plans was an eye opener, with the native coaches clearly disinterested in any engagements. The reasoning was staggering.

“We had a discussion and most of them didn’t think a game plan was important because if you gave players a game plan they could go to the president and tell him that you said this would work and it didn’t ... You’re better off being really vague and talking about generalisations.”

O’Gara has spoken about how French players can drop a ball in training and shrug — how did Joe Schmidt ever work there? — and even the most revered coaches believed that attitude and application during the week was not a priority.

“A lot of French coaches feel that,” he says. “Guy Noves would feel that if he can get the right pre-match talk, and if the ambience is good and the breakfast and the wine is good, then they can get a good performance.”

That’s not Jackman’s mindset. He likes accountability. He demands it. Of everyone.

The former Leinster and Ireland hooker has moulded a defined coaching philosophy stretching back to his days with Coolmine RFC and Clontarf and he is being allowed the space to put them into practise at Rodney Parade.

The Dragons are under the ownership of the WRU since July and he feels he has joined a club where everyone is on the same page. The union needs this to work, so does the region, and he understands that it will take cooperation from all sides.

It may be that Gatland rings at times and tells him a certain player needs to get more games but there have been no instructions on how to play even though the Welsh coach’s philosophy and Jackman’s seem to differ significantly.

“He just said: ‘get in there and get it done. If you need me ring me’.”

The Irishman has been allowed to appoint all his own staff — a crucial factor for him — but Rob Howley and Robin McBryde, Gatland’s assistants, have been in to chat and the union’s S&C man, Paul Stridgeon, spent a week with them recently.

The new coach is starting from close to scratch.

For all the talk of the Dragons’ traditions, this a region that hasn’t finished in the top half of the Celtic League since 2005. They sat 11th of 12 at the end of the last campaign having won four games.

Jackman is realistic. He estimates it takes 18 months to break in a new attacking game plan and 12 for a defensive operation. His defence coach, Hendre Marnitz, is only three weeks in the door from South Africa and the Blue Bulls.

Early signs have been positive. Unlike the French, Jackman finds Welsh players are eager for a framework to work with but they have no interest in asking why things are being done in a certain way, as is his experience with Irish players.

“There are obviously guys within it who would challenge me but as a group — and speaking to Warren, the group he’s had — they like to be given direction and they’ll get on with it. They’re very honest, very straightforward.” The goal is successful, attacking rugby.

Jackman looked on from afar at the titles won by Glasgow, Connacht, and Scarlets. He understands that the new PRO14 is a more open and exciting competition, one that rewards freedom of expression in a way the Top 14 and Premiership do not.

“There is still pressure for results, there has to be in elite sport, but with no relegation you can maybe take a brave call rather than a conservative call in terms of how you set up your team and how you play. You don’t always have to pick the safest player. You can look for a guy who has the X-factor and try to make him ‘safe’. Make sure he has the fundamentals and understanding not to be someone who leaks points, not to be an exciting player in attack and defence. To be solid in defence and exciting in attack is the model I want.”

The first test comes this Saturday with the visit of Leinster.

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