Friday 6 December 2019

'An unbelievably unstable way of making a living' - Why Irish rugby's biggest stars are turning away from coaching

Former Ireland and Leinster Rugby player, Bernard Jackman, spent time as a head coach with Grenoble and the Dragons. Picture Credit:Frank McGrath
Former Ireland and Leinster Rugby player, Bernard Jackman, spent time as a head coach with Grenoble and the Dragons. Picture Credit:Frank McGrath 3/12/19

Des Berry

It was the golden generation - Munster and Leinster lifting the profile of the game in the 2000s, eventually leading to Ireland cracking the Grand Slam ceiling for just the second time in 2009.

Ten years later, Leo Cullen is the head coach at Leinster and Ronan O’Gara holds the same position at La Rochelle. Geordan Murphy is Leicester through and through. That’s it.

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It has not spawned a flow of coaches up through the system to Ireland where assistants John Fogarty and Richie Murphy are outnumbered by Englishmen Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and Simon Easterby, the ex-Ireland flanker, who discovered the game at Ampleforth College and Harrogate RFC.

Moving down into the Irish provinces, Cullen is joined by South Africa’s Johann van Graan, England’s Dan McFarland and Australia’s Andy Friend as provincial lead coaches.

Overall, there are more English coaches (7) in the system than Irish (6) with South Africa (3), Australia (2), New Zealand (2), Wales (2) and Argentinean Feilipe Contepomi completing the list of 23 senior professionals.

No Brian O’Driscoll. No Shane Horgan. No Denis Hickie. No Paul O’Connell. No David Wallace. And on it goes.

"Generally, the majority of Irish rugby players have other options when they finish playing. They don’t need to go coaching," said Bernard Jackman, the ex-Grenoble and Dragons head coach.

"Irish players are very well educated, whether it comes from personal education or through the Rugby Players of Ireland push for education during your career.

"A lot of players have good mentors, who bring them into company life, while they are still playing.

"They know where they want to go. They are very switched on."

They have serious post-rugby options in what is an education-driven, and oftentimes, middle-class sport.

For instance, Jackman is currently working as an account manager with Refinitiv, a global provider of financial markets data and infrastructure.

Cullen and O’Gara have turned away from alternative, more lucrative business options, presumably, for the love of the game.

"Coaching is an unbelievably volatile, unstable way of making a living," said Jackman.

"It is a much easier lifestyle for a single person with no family to worry about."

For someone like O’Driscoll, there is a very real consideration of how potential underperformance as a coach could undermine his brand.

"That is absolutely the case, if you can commercialise your brand in other ways," confirmed the ex-Ireland hooker.

"Take Martin Johnson, a non-Irish example, his brand has been damaged massively by coaching England.

"He is the only England captain to have won a World Cup. But, he is nowhere near as prolific in the media or on the after-dinner speaking circuit as Clive Woodward, the only England coach to win a World Cup.

"The potential of failing in coaching could certainly damage someone’s brand."

Jackman did not have to contemplate such a financial injury as a self-confessed "journeyman" player, opting to leave Ireland to enter the professional circuit.

"I think there are fellas in Ireland, who would love to coach abroad, but are waiting for the phone to ring. That’s not going to happen," he said.

This is where a salesman’s instinct underpinned what appeared to be Jackman’s sudden arrival as defence coach to French club Grenoble in 2011.

The man has a neck as thick as a rhinoceros and he used it to bull his way into the French Top-14.

"I’ll tell you what I did. I did a Skype interview. I sold how I saw a defensive system working and how I was going to coach it."

Had you ever coached defence?

"No. Never. No.

"But, what I did do was tell them that if they gave me the job, I would jump on a plane to New Zealand and spend four weeks there, being mentored by Super Rugby defence coaches."

Had you been in touch with any Super Rugby clubs before the interview?

"No. Never. No. The hard part was getting the job. Then, I had to get the experience," he said.

"I asked Brent Pope, who is a good mentor to me, could he help me because I needed to go to New Zealand for four weeks to spend time in a Super Rugby environment.

"He rang Jamie Joseph, an old teammate of his, who was at the Highlanders. He looked after me for the first week.

"They were going on tour to South Africa, so Jamie rang up Todd Blackadder and I went to Crusaders. They took me in for a week and were unbelievable.

"They sent me to the Chiefs for a week and, from there, I made it to the Hurricanes for three days and the Blues for two, taking in all five clubs."

From there, the agreement with Grenoble owner Fabrice Landreau was struck to become the part-time defence coach.

"We shook hands and he promised, if we got promoted, I would be there full-time," shared Jackman.

It was a busy time, coaching at St Michael’s College and working as a rugby development officer in DCU. Already armed with a degree in International Marketing and Japanese, Jackman went back and did a Masters in Sports and Exercise Management at UCD.

"Grenoble asked me to come over once a month for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, basically to do a review of the games they had played, coach defence and do one-on-one reviews with the players.

"It wasn’t easy. But, it was great. It was definitely imposter syndrome all the time.

"You have to embrace that and look forward to the day you’re not a complete imposter. That’s a fact.

"It keeps you on your toes if you know you are out of your depth."

When the adventure in France ended with Grenoble bottom of the Top 14 in 2017, Jackman popped up as head coach at the Dragons.

"When I went to Grenoble, I had Italians, Romanians, Germans, Irish coaches come over; the same at the Dragons," he said.

"I believe the greatest gift you can give as a coach is to open up your doors to other coaches, let them come in and observe, learn. It was phenomenal.

"The Kiwis aren’t worried about sharing information because they are already planning for the next step.

"It is a really good attitude to have. As soon as you think you know it all, what you have is unique, you’re boll**ed.

"That gave me real confidence."

O’Gara has led a charmed coaching life, built on making the right decisions from his move to Paris in 2013 all the way to his current position at La Rochelle.

"It wasn’t easy for him going to Racing as a defence coach, dealing with two French coaches who were so tight from working together for so long," stated Jackman.

"Trying to influence change as an assistant is a very difficult thing to do.

"He kept his head down, developed, increased his role and then moved to New Zealand.

"He would have taken a big pay cut to go there. The salaries in Super Rugby are disastrous.

"He wouldn’t have got that opportunity unless Dan Carter believed in him because he is good.

"He got his first job on a mixture of selling himself and his profile.

"Since then, it is because of the reputation he has built through the work he has done."

O’Gara did not wait for the phone to ring. He made his moves happen.

And Jackman respects that.

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