Friday 23 February 2018

Bernard Jackman can only see one winner: Munster

David Kelly

David Kelly

Normally, a transitional Munster side robbed of its talisman and fielding a number of inexperienced players should have little chance of storming French rugby's Bastille on Heineken Cup opening day.

Then again, Munster have never done normal throughout their colourful romance with the Heineken Cup.

Nor, it increasingly seems in any form of combat, do their erratic hosts at the Stade de France this Saturday.

Racing Metro are a club whose monumental playing budget -- at €20m it dwarfs Munster's by a multiple of four -- has not prevented them in engaging in typically French revolutionary fervour.

Mostly from within, it has to be said.

Whereas Munster deal in drama, their opponents prefer to wallow in pure soap opera.

A name synonymous with a glorious age in French club rugby has latterly been driven to distraction by internal strife.

Since businessman Jacky Lorenzetti -- whose personal wealth reputedly exceeds €700m -- bought a 61pc controlling stake in the then Pro D2 strugglers in 2006, controversy has rarely been far away.

Budget

After a dismal first season in which Racing Metro finished 11th in Pro D2, Lorenzetti upped the budget to a massive €9m, recruited former French international Pierre Berbizier as coach and invested in big-name players such as Andrew Mehrtens, Sireli Bobo and Agustin Pichot.

Since then, their pursuit of Top 14 glory and Heineken Cup success has demonstrated itself to be a hopelessly vainglorious voyage.

Munster are already unwitting benefactors.

Twelve months ago, a coup d'état ejected the popular Simon Mannix from his post as backs coach; typically, it was hours after his side had secured a thrilling bonus-point victory against Biarritz.

Later in the season, a dressing-room upheaval prompted the continent's most lucratively rewarded player, Sebastian Chabal, to demand of Lorenzetti a fiery ultimatum.

Either Chabal or temperamental head coach Berbizier had to go -- after some negotiations, Chabal was politely ushered through the revolving door.

After imploding for a second successive season in Europe and slumping in the final stages of the Top 14 in typically chaotic fashion, Lionel Nallet and Francois Steyn followed after another player uprising had been foiled.

Berbizier has remained but is "upstairs", in euphemistic coaching parlance; this week, Castres' exciting coaching duo, Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, are due to announce that they will be decamping to Paris next term.

Berbizier, the diminutive former France scrum-half, whose size always belied his doggedness, probably won't hang around, especially since his brother got the heave-ho in one of the many putsches.

Gonzalo Quesada, the former Argentinian international, is currently head coach, assisted by Simon Raiwalui, but neither seem set fair for a long stint in the French capital.

On the field, things aren't much better, as Grenoble's Irish defence coach, Bernard Jackman, found out recently when his side saw them off comfortably, 27-13, at the foot of Alpe d'Huez.

"I think Munster will win," says Jackman confidently. "There's so much stuff going on off the pitch at the moment with the new coaches coming in, injuries and Berbizier upstairs. Simon will know the players inside out. It won't be a packed-out Stade de France so I expect Munster to get the win."

Last weekend, Racing succumbed meekly at home to Montpellier, the side who shocked them in the Top 14 play-off semi-final two seasons back.

Although tickets for the Munster clash went on sale for just €5 yesterday, locals reckon they will struggle to half-fill the 80,000-seater stadium; despite their cash-rich status, even they don't match the pulling power of Max Guazzini's colourful Stade Francais outfit down the road.

Former Bath man Olly Barkley has pitched up as a 'medical joker' following injuries to Jonathan Wisniewski and Benjamin Dambielle, and Jackman expects Racing to pursue a grunting approach.

"They average more passes per game (122) than any other team in Top 14, even Toulouse, but it's mostly one-out rugby, trying to launch their powerfully big men up the middle," explains Jackman.

"They will try to retain possession for long periods but they won't stretch you.

"They're massively into the scrum with Patricio Noriega, the ex-Wallaby scrum coach there. But I think Munster could even match them there, if not dominate."

Jackman, who has had coaching stints with St Michael's College, Tullow and Clontarf, is one of a flurry of Irish coaches pursuing a career in foreign shores.

His Grenoble outfit are currently surviving more than adequately in French rugby's notoriously competitive top flight, enjoying the best start of any promoted club in Top 14 history with a 5-3 winning record.

Jackman reckons that 10 wins will be enough to keep the 'Mountain Men' up and, considering moneybags outfit Lyon failed at their first attempt last season to do so, that would be some feather in his cap.

With daughter Ava (six), and son Ben (four) installed in a multi-lingual montessori, life is good for Jackman, who doesn't feel any remorse about the fact that he has had to join the some 80,000 Irish who emigrated last year to find employment.

"There are limited opportunities at home with only the four provinces and, in fairness, unless the Irish candidates are better, I don't see any problem with giving coaching positions to overseas guys.

"When I was a player, I wanted to play for the best coaches available, and you can see with the success that they've brought, particularly at Leinster, that the decisions have been validated," the Carlow native explains.

"It's a good thing for me to experience this culture. Coaching is a nomadic lifestyle anyway so you have to be prepared to travel. If it makes me a better coach, then that will more than justify my decision."

Irish Independent

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