Sunday 19 November 2017

Wheel turns full circle for Jackman

Bernard Jackman’s Dragons take on the team that launched his own professional rugby career. Photo: Sportsfile
Bernard Jackman’s Dragons take on the team that launched his own professional rugby career. Photo: Sportsfile

Sometimes you have to go back to where the journey all started to remind you of the road you're on.

In 1998, Warren Gatland made a phone call that would change Bernard Jackman's life but only if he wanted it to.

The grizzled Galwegians player/coach had recently played against the flinty young Tullow lad in Clontarf colours and, for the Kiwi, it was like looking in the mirror at a younger self. When he got the Connacht gig, he remembered the gritty ginger ball-carrier.

"What about college?" Jackman wondered. Even for a 21-year-old student, the salary offer didn't seem like enough of a punt in old Irish punts - 7,500 of them - to offset the reality that he wanted to get a "real" job.

"Reality" never bit; rugby did. And all these years later, he's still bitten by the bug.

Twenty years on from their first meeting on a rugby field, Gatland made another phone call to Jackman.

Again, it was an offer perhaps easier to refuse but if life has taught Jackman one lesson: the difficulty of the road doesn't necessarily make the destination less worthwhile.

Fitting

And so Dragons - once Newport Gwent Dragons - host the team that launched his career at Rodney Parade this Friday. It seems quite fitting.

"I had other opportunities which were probably a little more glamorous," says the 41-year-old; the Blue Bulls in Pretoria led the queue.

"A lot of people don't put themselves out for other people so when I got that call from Warren, the confidence that he had in me to understand his vision for this region was important to me."

Aside from their shared history, Gatland had seen the job Jackman had done at Grenoble, in France; during a five-year spell, the sleeping giants were radically restored, and much of the credit was due to an Irishman who arrived as a consultant but ended up as a head coach.

Typically, the Irishman ended up getting most of the blame when the club nestled amongst Alpine grandeur struck a slippery slope; last summer, he could see the signs but, although fluent in French, he refused to acknowledge them.

"I'm my own worst enemy, I'm stubborn," says Jackman. "When pay cuts happened last year, I should have walked. Since then, it became incredibly difficult. It was a battle.

"You had players signing for other clubs so it actually benefited them if we went down. I'm not the first coach to find out the hard way in France and not the first foreign coach either."

It was fun while it lasted and carnage while it ended, with players running behind his back to the club president to complain about everything from the game-plan menu to the dinner menu.

"It wasn't nice to be going through it but it was great to get through it. We built from the second tier and it was great to coach against teams with much bigger budgets and world-class players every week."

Which is pretty much where he finds himself now. The newly-reformed Dragons, since their institution by far the weakest of the Welsh regions, are an underappreciated, under-supported and under-resourced outfit.

Heavy defeats in their opening two league encounters reflect the enormous task awaiting them but while others might see adversity, Jackman sees only opportunity.

Gatland, along with Welsh rugby boss Roger Lewis, who has brought Dragons under Union control, want to develop the Gwent region as a viable force in the country.

And, although the club have not finished in the top half of the Celtic League since 2005, all are singing off the same hymn sheet even if it is now merely a blank page.

"Everyone wants us to do well and I have been given the support structures to try to develop something long-lasting. I am my own boss but Warren and Roger are there if I need support.

"I have an idea from Grenoble what a high-class performance outfit should look like from top to bottom.

"This is a one-off opportunity to build something special from the ground up and from the top down.

"There is a lot of historical baggage there but the community are starting to feel like they are part of something tangible again and we need to build on that confidence and self-belief."

He has chosen to live in Newport itself; anyone who knows Newport would never choose to do so but Jackman's commitment is total.

Most of his training sessions are open and he conducts regular public forums with the supporters, bringing players - such as former Welsh star Gavin Henson - to meet and greet and his twitter timeline acts as a constant interface with the public.

The Academy side have won three of their opening four games; 13 of the squad that travel west this week are home-grown.

Hosting Connacht, an 'Irish Dragons' for more than a decade before emerging to win the title two seasons ago, will give him a closer idea of where his side stand. Another look in the mirror.

"There are a lot of similarities to what happened in Connacht after myself and Gatty left," he admits. "Once they got support and a plan, look what they could achieve?"

Irish Independent

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