Sport Rugby

Thursday 26 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: 'They don't bring them here to get smashed to bits'

Grenoble coach Jackman insists Irish exports have nothing to fear from move to Top 14 and believes they can have longer careers there

Bernard Jackman
Bernard Jackman
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Johnny Sexton is in Dubai this week, enjoying a well-earned break from his punishing club schedule in Paris.

While international colleagues prepare for a huge Heineken Cup weekend, Racing Metro have given Sexton the opportunity to recharge his batteries now that their own European adventure is over.

The Ireland out-half has found himself on almost constant duty since the start of the Top 14 season because of injuries to Racing's two back-up 10s, Jonathan Wisniewski and Juan Martin Hernandez. It is a workload the club would not have planned for their highest earner, just one that circumstance forced upon them.

DISASTROUS

And Sexton's schedule has fed a notion that club rugby in France could place disastrous physical demands on Irish stars Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, both currently considering contract offers from Toulon.

O'Brien visited the European champions last weekend and is thought to be keen to resolve his future this week as he continues his recovery from a shoulder dislocation sustained on Pro 12 duty with Leinster. That injury is set to keep him out of Ireland's Six Nations campaign and, given his famously combative style, some now fear that a move to France could be ruinous for the Carlow man.

But Bernard Jackman believes that worries for O'Brien and any other Irish players considering Top 14 as a career option are built on misconceptions.

The former Ireland hooker has been two years with Grenoble and will be the club's head coach next season. He suspects that an illusion has been created about club rugby in France that doesn't quite stand up to serious scrutiny.

"Things have changed," observed Jackman yesterday.

"Sports science is sports science. It doesn't matter if it's Ireland, France or Australia, everyone understands there's only so many times you can go to the well with a guy.

"It's not as if the sports science in France is any different to what the Irish are using.

"I would say that two or three more games a season is what these players would play in France. Look at guys like (Imanol) Harinordoquy, (Dimitri) Yachvili and (Fabien) Pelous, people who played Top 14 for many years.

"Genuinely, it is possible to have a long career in France and a lot do. In Ireland usually, when you get to 33 or 34, there's an expectation that you retire. In France, they see guys like that as having huge experience. They genuinely value older players over here."

The case studies of England's Jonny Wilkinson and the Springbok Bakkies Botha would seem to bear that theory out. Wilkinson will be 35 in May, but has thrived since his move to Toulon five years ago and was voted ERC European Player of 2013 after last season's Heineken Cup win.

Botha, who joined Toulon in 2011 as a "medical joker" after persistent injury made it a struggle to get insured as a professional in South Africa, was also part of that European triumph and continues to thrive on the Cote d'Azur.

A broad expectation in French club rugby is that the best players will play all 13 home league games and a specified number of away. Ensuring that your high-earners are fit for the business-end of the season tends to be the accepted policy.

Jackman also believes that the slower pace of Top 14 rugby may actually lessen the threat of potential injury.

In his newspaper column recently, Racing Metro coach Ronan O'Gara spoke of the club game in France as being played "at a snail's pace." The former Munster and Ireland out-half was reflecting upon a weekend in which seven Top 14 games decanted a miserly total of seven tries.

Racing had been beaten 6-0 at Oyonnax in that round of fixtures, O'Gara seeing the lighter side with his reflection that "there were at least three John Hayeses in the Oyonnax line-up -- and two of them in the centre!"

Jackman agrees that the domestic game in France is played at a significantly slower pace than anything considered commonplace in the Pro12, English Premiership or Heineken Cup. And, with that lack of pace, collisions tend to be more infrequent and less destructive.

"There are fewer collisions here and, face it, the most likely area for injury is in a collision," said Jackman. "With the pace of the game slower, there are fewer phases, so less opportunity for collision.

"Yes, the French game is very forward-orientated, but it is played at a very different pace. They might go very high for three minutes, then completely take the pace down. So there are peaks and troughs. The highs and lows of French rugby are much more extreme, whereas the Rabo or Aviva Premiership games or Heineken Cup games are played at a higher tempo for 80 minutes."

He continued: "Because they're so parochial, French fans are just motivated by winning. If you win 6-0, they've no issue with that. But when you go to watch a match in the Rabo -- with no relegation or promotion -- you kind of expect to be entertained a little bit.

"In France, because there is relegation and the top six is important for the Heineken Cup, every result is quite important. All the fans care about is winning, they don't really care about how you win. That's the difference.

"Very few teams want to build phases here and that's really where you get injured. You're not going to get injured in a line-out maul or in a scrum."

O'Brien and Heaslip have been attracting huge interest in France given the dearth of top-rank international players whose contracts are up for negotiation this side of the 2015 World Cup.

With the IRFU struggling to match the net salaries available in Top 14, not to mention the uncertainty currently afflicting European (and accordingly domestic) rugby structures, Irish players are becoming more open to the idea of stepping away from centralised Union contracts.

Jackman understands the benefits of care fundamental to a career at home, but believes that the Sexton example should not blur the realities of a professional rugby life in France.

"I think Johnny's was just an extreme example," he reflected. "In reality, if the other two 10s had been fit, Johnny would have played less. But he wasn't available for the Samoa game, then came home with a hamstring injury in November and it just looked as if he was being flogged to death.

"But Racing Metro don't want to flog anyone to death because they want their best players available for the back-end of the season. It doesn't make sense for them to invest so heavily in top players and let them get smashed to pieces."

Irish Independent

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