We won't be seeing the back of him just yet
INTERVIEW BERNARD JACKMAN:BERNARD JACKMAN is proof, proof positive indeed, of the benefits of two of the most put upon sections of Irish rugby – the club game and Connacht. Without either, he simply wouldn’t be playing for Leinster, never mind in Edinburgh today, writes GERRY THORNLEY
His case history, like many in the squad, also underlines how the team is reflective of the greater province rather than their oft-presumed D4 or Dublin southside bias. Jackman’s has been a circuitous route, from Coolkenno, five miles outside Tullow on the Carlow/Kilkenny border, via Clontarf (twice) and Connacht (twice), and Sale Sharks to his home province at 29 years of age.
His solid country grounding perhaps accounts for his pragmatic, very down-to-earth personality, while his Gaelic roots also contributed to the dynamic carrying and ball skills he has taken into rugby.
Last October, in their opening Heineken Cup win away to Edinburgh in the same Murrayfield where Leinster finish their journey today one way or the other, Jackman made a huge play when catching a cross kick to deny the home side a try, prompting the Sky commentator to inquire: “Did this guy play cricket for Ireland?”
No, Gaelic football for Tullow actually, and as he would later confide he was glad it wasn’t two Rathnew players coming at him.
Jackman and Stan Wright went to a Tullow RFC/CKR Radio Heineken Cup preview night last Saturday, with Mick Quinn as MC. Another local hero, Seán O’Brien was otherwise engaged playing for Leinster away to the Dragons, but Jackman reckons there were about 200 there, mostly dressed in blue. Scarcely a “Lunster” man in sight.
Not just from a non-rugby background, Jackman freely admits he hasn’t a trace of rugby in his genes. From Carlow, his father is a cattle dealer. In his formative years Jackman only played Gaelic football. “Playing out in the front garden every day I only kicked a round ball. I had an auntie who used to call over most Saturdays and whenever the Five Nations was on they’d turn it on. I’d be going mad because I wanted to watch the Premiership or something. I had no interest in rugby whatsoever but then I went to boarding school in Newbridge and obviously it’s the main sport there.”
“I took to it straight away,” he continues. “I loved it. Even at night, in between studies, you’d be playing “tip” (rugby) out in the courtyard. It got me through school, to be honest, because obviously, boarding is hard. Like, Newbridge is a great school and everything, but particularly in first and second year you’re away from home, rugby made it a lot easier for me, anyway. It got me respect from the lads ahead of me as well.”
His first game was on the wing. “An awful lot of people say I’ve never got off it since,” he laughs. He lasted one game there, mind, against Roscrea before being moved to flanker, where he captained the school’s Junior Cup team, completing the move to hooker in his senior cup years.
He is, of course, one of four Newbridge products on the pitch this evening – the others being team-mate Jamie Heaslip and the Leicester pair of Geordan and Johne Murphy. Geordan was a year below Jackman and was a stand-out talent, even as a 16-year-old.
“He was playing soccer and Gaelic as well. He was quite slight, so physically, he probably wasn’t ready but the talent was incredible. He was gifted. Everyone knew he was gifted. He just wanted to play, whether it was rugby, soccer or Gaelic, and then the final year he came into his own and they made the final when they were beaten by Rock.”
Fionn Carr, Peter Buckley and John O’Sullivan are other ex-Newbridge boys on the professional beat. Many theories abound as to why Newbridge are suddenly noted purveyors of individual talent, which is as much if not a greater contribution than that of the elite few who hoover up the trophies, and Jackman has a take on this.
“They never really put a gun to your head about winning stuff. It’s very much go out and enjoy, play, work on your skills. When I left Newbridge, I went to Lansdowne to play under-19s. The McCorry Cup was very intense at that time, and I played that year with guys from Clongowes – who’d won two Cups – and Blackrock and St Michael’s lads. Those guys were burnt out. They didn’t play after 19s, whereas for me getting to play for a club like Lansdowne was a massive thrill. But they’d had enough rugby.
“They were just burnt out. So from that point of view maybe we just last the pace a little bit better; we’re not sick of rugby. I think that might have something do with it.”
Even then, he needed a few breaks along the way, and the eagle eyes of a couple of Kiwis. Enter the club game. Brent Pope saw Jackman playing J1 for Lansdowne and recruited him to Clontarf, with whom Jackman emerged as a dynamic ball-carrying hooker in winning promotion from Division Two of the AIL in 1996-97.
During that promotion push, Warren Gatland brought himself on as a replacement for Galwegians against Clontarf and subsequently brought Jackman on board for Connacht the following season, when the province beat Northampton twice en route to the Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
“Gatland just gelled that side so well. “The Hell or to Connacht T-shirts” and all that. I know it all sounds very simple, but when you’ve nothing else it’s all in the mind. Clever stuff. And he was brilliant for me technically, with scrummaging and stuff.”
Glen Ross replaced Gatland, and then when Jackman joined Sale in 2000 for a couple of seasons, Ross ended up there as director of rugby before being sacked after a year.
“I ended up having Glen for three years. A nice fella, but more of a manager than a coach.”
Leinster had wanted Jackman, but at the time the IRFU forbid provinces poaching from other provinces. Two years on though, there were no vacancies in any of the provinces, so he kept his game and name on the radar by playing AIL with Clontarf.
It worked. Both Connacht and Leinster knocked on his door, but Eddie O’Sullivan advised him to rejoin Connacht, so he returned there for another two seasons, before finally joining Leinster eight years after hopping aboard the provincial circuit.
“A massive slog, but worth it,” admits Jackman. “I’m very proud of the fact I didn’t have a contract for a year but got back playing with one again, because that very rarely happens. It shows I’ve got belief in myself and I’m not prepared to give up the chase.”
For late-developing forwards it is only only through the club game – not the schools/Academies – they can be picked up in Ireland. “It’s vital,” says Jackman, who will be Clontarf’s head coach next season.
“The top eight is a great idea but they have to push those Academy fellas to play, to get them to play with older guys. The lads who got to play with Shane Byrne, like Royce Burke-Flynn, can only benefit from that. That’s invaluable.”
Jackman turned 33 three days after the semi-final win over Munster and would still be playing at amateur level even if, he also acknowledges, few players his age do any more.
“I love the camaraderie, the team spirit and the honesty of it, I suppose. That’s why I’ve coached at junior level for five years and it’s been great for me in terms of my own game, just seeing the dedication those guys have for no financial reward. I try and tap into that a little bit, I suppose as my own source of drive.”
Understandably, Jackman feels a debt to the club game and Clontarf especially, but he also wants to become a professional coach. As for any clash of interests, he points out he coached Tullow for a year at 23, Newbridge for another couple of seasons in his late 20s and latterly, Coolmine for two seasons. All won promotion, undefeated.
The opportunity to be director of rugby and forwards coach at Clontarf came sooner than he had anticipated, but he has appointed ex-DLSP outhalf Simon Broughton as his head coach. With another season on his current contract, he hopes to dovetail his club commitments and playing for Leinster for at least another two years.
“There will be certain Saturday games I’ll miss but in terms of training it’s just a question of time management,” he says, also pointing out he ran a shop in Coolkenno and he and wife Sinéad have two young children, Ben and Ava. “I like to keep busy off the field. I’d go cracked if I just went training and then home to bed.”
His work ethic and enthusiasm can be a negative. Normally tough and durable, save for a broken leg when he first joined Leinster in 05-06, both his knees were scoped in December and he returned to action sooner than he should have, in hindsight. He’ll see a specialist on Tuesday to try and have the problems sorted for pre-season.
By then he’ll have played what he admits is a game every bit as big – if not bigger – than any of his nine appearances for Ireland.
“I’m very proud to have played for my country but I would be equally proud if we won the Heineken Cup; it’s right up there in terms of what you can achieve.”
And part of that is because of enviously watching Munster in four of the previous nine finals, even while on holidays. “Without a doubt,” he repeats. “Even if you win the Magners, you still want to win the Heineken Cup, and you see them building up towards it, and the hype and the occasion. So it’s nice to be a part of that but it’ll be all about winning it.”
Yeah, therein lies the rub. Having come this far, to lose would be worse than being eliminated in the pool stages, he reckons.
The one blemish on Leinster’s performance against Munster was their line-out, with Jackman conceding that three of the lost line-outs were down to his bad throws, and this drew fairly stinging criticism from one former Leinster player turned pundit last weekend.
“Technically, I may have issues with my game or whatever, but I definitely think a lot of fellas respect me for the way I’ve played, so that’s all I want.”
He’s glad it’s Leicester they’re playing, especially after their coronation as English champions. “If we beat them, we’ll deserve it. We’ll have beaten Munster and Leicester and I don’t think anyone could say we didn’t deserve it.”
Date of birth:May 5th, 1976
Weight:112 kg (17st 9 lb)
Honours: Ireland (9 caps); Leinster U-19/21s, Irish Colleges, Ireland A Club: Clontarf FC
School:Newbridge College Connacht/Sale/Leinster caps: 73/24/72