'First time I saw a schools cup match I was hooked'
Jackman tells Donnchadh Boyle how he owes career to Donnybrook day out
FROM day one, Bernard Jackman was smitten with schools rugby. Ask him now and he recalls with vivid detail his first taste of the Leinster Schools Cup. Jackman was in the crowd as a first year as Newbridge College went to Donnybrook and were "thrashed" by a Blackrock team that included Shane Byrne. It mattered not – Jackman was hooked.
"I hadn't touched a rugby ball before I went to Newbridge," 'Birch' recalls. "I came from a GAA background, but the whole thing was great. We got a half-day to go up and it just caught my imagination. I had never seen anything like it, everything about it was great. I remember the senior team wore different ties. It gave you a standing in the school."
Jackman's schools career was a mixed bag. He captained the Junior Cup team that lost to Roscrea before enjoying two seasons with the SCT. In year one, Pres Bray ended their interest. His second campaign came to an end when Newbridge came out on the wrong side of a 25-20 result in a Kildare derby against Clongowes.
"That was a tough one to take. There's a huge rivalry there. It's crazy because you spend four or five months training for what might be just one outing," he says.
Newbridge haven't tasted success since 1970, when Mick Quinn led his side to success over a fancied Blackrock outfit, but, nonetheless, they have produced a steady stream of top-quality players in recent years.
The Six Nations match against Scotland in 2008 was a proud day for the school. Tony Buckley's introduction on 74 minutes brought to four the number of Newbridge boys on the pitch as he joined Jackman, Geordan Murphy and Jamie Heaslip.
Today, a photo of the four alumni together takes pride of place in the school's reception area.
That representation was bettered only in 1977 when Quinn, Tom Grace, Freddie McLennen, Robbie McGrath and Ronan Kearney all represented their country.
The school also enjoyed a unique position on Heineken Cup final day in 2009 when they had a pair of representatives on both sides, with Geordan and Johne Murphy in the Leicester side and Jackman and Heaslip playing for Leinster.
"There hasn't been much success in the way of cups, but there's a steady stream of good players coming out of Newbridge," says Jackman.
"Things have changed for Newbridge as there's day boys now, so that will help with numbers. And there's a number of good clubs in the area too, but there's still some work to be done to catch the Dublin schools – they still have boarders (whereas Newbridge phased out boarding in the late 1990s) and they are there for weekend and it's just rugby and study. The local rivalry helps to focus minds too."
Schools rugby kick-started Jackman's playing career, and it also set him on the right course for his coaching adventures. He has been involved with a variety of teams for many years, but his meteoric rise in recent season got lift-off with a Leinster schools success with St Michael's in 2012.
"There's so much you can do with schools players. I don't think you'll ever get a group of players at any other stage who are so focused on one thing. All they want to do, outside of school, is play rugby," he enthuses.
"At club level you might have guys who have predetermined ideas about rugby or how to play the game and it can be very hard to change those things. You don't get that with schools players. They have no fear.
"I do think professional coaches should take a school team. It definitely helped me."
At the same time as he was plotting St Michael's success, he made the bold move to French second-tier outfit Grenoble as defence coach. Such has been the impression the former Ireland hooker has made, he has been promoted to head coach for next season.
Moving abroad has given Jackman a new appreciation of just how important the work done by schools is to the health of Irish rugby.
"There's no schools rugby here," he said, speaking from France. "In fact there's no schools sport at all really. Kids here play their rugby at club and there's not the same level of infrastructure to develop players.
"A French 18-year-old, I would equate to an Irish 15-year-old in terms of their movement and rugby IQ. They only train a couple of nights a week. There's nothing like the focus for them that there is on a cup."
For Jackman, one day in Donnybrook has sparked an affinity that will continue to endure.