Monday 22 January 2018

Welcome to a world where club is king and raw emotion fuels expectations

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The whine of the ice machine grows louder as game-time looms. A red, digital clock mounted high on the end-wall counts down the seconds, most players now lost in that final private space before leaving here as a team.

Some sit, separated from all around them by headphones. Others stand, applying tape to hands like prizefighters getting knuckles wrapped. Increasingly, the queue for two small urinals brings congestion to the toilet door.

Then it is time and, without instruction, everyone is on their feet forming a tight circle around Fabrice Landreau. The coach speaks so quietly, his words escape those of us standing just 15 feet away. Only his eyes communicate fury.

Landreau's message is already known. He'd delivered it, maybe 90 minutes earlier, upstairs in the coaches' office at a gathering they call "the prayer". A seven-minute oration in French, ending with an English punchline.

"You understand?" he bellowed, jabbing the elbow of a South African prop forward. "Angry, angry, angry!"

This would be Grenoble's final game of the season at Stade Lesdiguieres and Landreau wanted his players to register the fact as some kind of emotional watershed. "They are waiting for you out there," he said of the supporters. "Remember that!"

Now in the cramped dressing-room, players hug aggressively and whisper wide-eyed oaths. Studs clack noisily on the stone floor as Andrew Farley calls them into a last, tight huddle.

"Let's get f**king stuck into them from the start," roars the captain. And they turn, as one, hurrying out into the raucous valley beyond, someone having had the good sense to swing the door open.

BERNARD JACKMAN begins his tour by two espresso machines in a small room at one end of 'Allee Peppino', the stadium corridor named after a devoted fan who collapsed and died at Lesdiguieres some years ago.

"The fuel of French rugby," he chuckles, placing a plastic cup beneath each metal spout. Next to the machines is a narrow fridge filled with yoghurts and some empty plastic trays, yet to be stocked with the daily fruit and baguettes.

Music blares from a modest gym where the players, who will have no involvement today against Montpellier, pedal away their frustrations. Jackman engages easily with them in French and, listening, it is hard to believe that when he first touched down in Grenoble for a pre-season consultancy 22 months ago, he – literally – did not have a word.

But Grenoble's recent story is full of improbable liaisons.

When Connacht released second-row Farley in '09 after six seasons in their colours, the expectation would have been that his career was in wind-down. Yet, Landreau was encouraged to bring him to the then Pro D2 club and, within a year, Grenoble had an Australian captain.

Farley's temperament became the soothing balm in a dressing-room of hot tempers. "Rest calm..." is, he agrees, his most over-used expression. When they just missed promotion to the Top 14 with a surprising play-off defeat to Bordeaux, Landreau confided to his captain that the team needed more precision. "And I thought of 'Birch' immediately," recalls Farley.

It was May of 2011 and Jackman, a Connacht team-mate of Farley's for two seasons, had just left Clontarf after leading them to the AIL 1B crown. His coaching reputation was gathering weight, having also coached Tullow, Coolmine and Newbridge to League titles as well as St Michael's to the Leinster Schools Senior Cup.

The two men had kept in regular contact, sharing an appetite for knowledge founded on the understanding that, in preparation of any team, technique should hold primacy over emotion.

Farley put Landreau in contact with Jackman and, after a couple of Skype conversations, a consultancy was agreed upon. Having already committed to a summer of self-education in New Zealand, Bernard would now cut it short to join Grenoble at pre-season training camp on Alpe d'Huez.

There was just one trifling complication. Landreau wanted Jackman to coach defence. Something he had not done before.

So, for four weeks, Jackman crammed information in New Zealand. Brent Pope had given him a few contacts and he took himself from The Blues to The Chiefs to the The Crusaders, each club proving more welcoming than the last. His experience with the latter was especially informative, world-class players like Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Brad Thorne and Kieran Read working with real humility in makeshift surrounds.

Christchurch was still experiencing aftershocks from the catastrophic February earthquake and Jackman remembers one leading to the brief suspension of a training session.

"I was sitting in the stand thinking: 'Jesus are we going to die here?'" he recalls. "But they just stopped, waited for it to pass, then kicked on with everything. They had an unbelievably good attitude to work."

That month flew by and, soon, he was checking into a hotel on Alpe d'Huez and being immediately summoned to Landreau's room and invited to make a presentation to Grenoble's coaching staff on his defensive 'philosophy.' Without French, Jackman did so essentially through sign language. But he knew what he was communicating.

"It's not rocket science," he says now. "Defence is more black and white than attack. They'd never really had a defence system before and, without a system, you can't know whose tackle it is."

Jackman had designed a 12-page power-point presentation on his philosophy, accompanied by a 12-page exact translation into French. And he demonstrated that philosophy through video clips. The players responded, instantly.

"They were great," he remembers. "They really bought into it and gave good feedback to Fabrice. They liked working on defence, which was unusual. Generally, people don't because there's no glory in defence."

Pre-season over, Landreau didn't have the budget to extend their arrangement further, but Jackman chose not to abandon the project. He regarded what he was doing as "an internship" and agreed to dissect every Grenoble game from home that season, sending Fabrice weekly defence reports.

Grenoble coasted through their Pro D2 campaign, securing promotion with three games still to go. Their defence had leaked the grand total of eight tries.

So, they formalised Jackman's role for the city's return to Top 14, Bernard moving Sinead and their children, Ava and Ben, into a fine house just the width of Rue Albert Reynier from the stadium. And Landreau, like Bernard a former international hooker, set survival as the priority.

The consensus was that Grenoble would need 40 points to be safe. Just over half-way through this season, they had got them.

They'd put some giants to the sword en route to that tally, either at Lesdiguieres or the city's bigger Stade de Alpes. Among those who fell in Grenoble were Toulouse, Stade Francais and Racing Metro. Yet the victory that gave Jackman greatest pleasure was an Alamo-style escape against Castres.

"Beating Toulouse was a big step," he says. "It gave me great belief in the system. But, against Castres, we were under the cosh for the last 10 minutes and our defence was outstanding. We actually made 249 tackles. I do my own stats, because I want consistency and the previous best we had was 164. So it was off the scale.

"The guys just dug in. There was a real sense of everyone almost wanting to die for the cause that day. And that's inspiring. I think people realised that day how far we'd come this season."

The Grenoble dressing-room is a melting pot of different nationalities, yet the ambience stays resolutely French. Jonathan Best, a giant second-row from Roman-sur-Isere, has been 11 seasons with the club, a journey that has taken him up from the amateur depths of Federale 1. He is chief translator among the players now, offering a local perspective on Jackman's contribution.

"He is good for us because he teaches us new things," says Best, "things we never worked on before. His way to work is so different to what we have in France. And we like it because it makes us efficient."

The difference is, essentially, cultural. As Farley explains: "The key, I think, is not to come in here and try to change a huge amount of things. The French are very set in their ways, just in their lifestyle and their culture. They enjoy to eat between 12 and two, so they eat between 12 and two! That's been their way for hundreds and hundreds of years and you must respect that.

"But credit to 'Birch', when he came over he had all his plans in place. I think he brought a lot of the attitude and techniques from Leinster. You can get away with stuff in Pro D2 that you won't get away with in Top 14. So, he brought that edge and clinical touch, which paid off hugely for us during the first half of the season.

"It's been so refreshing for us to get real technical assistance."

Jackman's expertise hasn't gone unnoticed elsewhere, with both Stade Francais and Biarritz known to have made enquiries. Yet, he's just signed a one-year extension at Grenoble and, with speculation in France this week linking Landreau with a move to Clermont the season after next, the future is an open book.

Only trouble is, Grenoble's season has begun to taper. Subconsciously, there is a sense of people settling for what they hold. Landreau, Jackman and forwards' coach, Sylvain Begon, endlessly stress the duty of care they have to the community.

The club has an annual budget of €11.5m and salaries are generous. Players were on a bonus of €12,000 a man to stay up.

"Rugby here is a more intense experience," says Jackman. "But there is a mentality here of not always reaching for the top. They can be very safe in their ambitions, whereas I'd prefer to shoot for the stars.

"And players can be slow to accept responsibility. I'm fighting against that. They like to have their excuses on a Monday morning, come into the video room, fold their arms and cross their legs. They're on the defensive straight away.

"Compared to Irish players, they're more emotional by a hundred miles. Their body language can be so good or so bad, you wonder how some survive in professional rugby. Because a few of them don't take direction very well, they don't like to be questioned.

"In Ireland, if you make a mistake that costs your team, you're nearly waiting for Monday morning to put your hand up and apologise.

"That's, culturally, the big difference here. No-one will ever say: 'I had a bad game!' No-one will ever say: 'That's my fault!'

"They just wave you away as if to say: 'F**k, what do you know?' So you have to push them. Some of them need a gun to the head a lot."

Yet, there is a sense of place that is palpable here. A walk through the old town presents a Luas-like tram on the corner of Rue Raoul Blanchard and Rue de Boune, painted in the club's red and blue colours and bearing giant pictures of the players. Every game Grenoble play is televised live, with coaches expected to do sideline radio interviews during the action.

The local soccer team barely draws 500 a game to Stade des Alpes, for this is indisputably rugby country, a place with GAA-type prejudice and passion. France finishing with the Six Nations' Wooden Spoon scarcely registered in these parts.

"Means nothing here, nothing," confirms Jackman. "They don't care that much about the national team. If France lose, they'll give out about it on the Monday morning, but by Monday afternoon, they've switched back on to the Top 14.

"To the public, that's just the French federation's business. That may sound weird, but it's all local here. Get relegated from the Top 14 and contracts don't matter a thing.

"You'll be gone."

AS dusk falls, the jagged Alps encircle the stadium like black teeth. Grenoble struggle to contain Montpellier's power, especially their vast back-row. Twice in the first-half, Grenoble's struggle leads to players getting sin-binned. The first yellow triggers momentary defensive confusion, allowing Montpellier's out-half, Francois Trinh-Duc, to skate between the posts for an easy try.

For a team with the third-meanest home defence in French rugby, the try is an affront.

In the dressing-room, Landreau preaches calm. His squat frame dips down low for earnest discussion with individuals, before he calls everyone to their feet. They gulp water and squeeze energy gel from sachets as Farley reminds them of the obligation for discipline.

Only Clermont have left Grenoble with a victory this year and the 7-3 scoreline now challenges local honour. Backs coach Franck Corrihons pulls fly-half Blair Stewart over to a white board to deliver instruction through a blizzard of arrows.

Stewart is a Kiwi, who reckons the emotion of French coaching hasn't helped his confidence. When he played back home with Southland, he had – he says – an "80pc kicking return." But, at Albi, his game was routinely ridiculed by the coach and, here, he now finds himself relegated to Grenoble's third-choice place-kicker – a fate that Jonny Sexton will hope to avoid when he encounters the raw emotion of French rugby with Racing Metro next season.

Jackman delivers the final message, slapping cheeks and stomachs as they then pour back out the door. Grenoble push hard in the second-half, but Montepellier are too big. Blair plays poorly at 10, his decision-making suspect.

The 12,000 crowd begins to sense the inevitable and, with maybe 10 minutes remaining, a pocket of supporters summons an incongruous Mexican wave on the east side of the ground in Tribune Tennis. Grenoble are beaten. They lose 16-9.

Afterwards, Landreau goes from cubicle to cubicle, shaking hands. He allows no cliques in his dressing-room, the players drawing lots at the beginning of the season to determine where they sit. They pick at cheese and ham sandwiches, waiting for fresh energy before heading for the showers.

Landreau invites Stewart out into the corridor, where – discreetly – he articulates his displeasure. The club president, a stern, bearded figure, stands with hands in pockets, observing quietly.

Next up, they fly to Biarritz. Just six days to light another fire.

Tonight, they will sleep like stones.

Irish Independent

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