Bald facts speak for themselves

 

European Cup Pool Six: Johnny Wattersonmeets the in-form Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman and gets to clear up a few urban legends about the RDS crowd-pleaser.

Two things that are untrue about Bernard Jackman: he has a voice message saying, "Hi, you've reached the message minder of Bernard Jackman. I can't come to the phone right now, I'm practising my throwing"; his nickname is "Steamed Ham".

Two things that are true about Bernard Jackman: before last Christmas he was considering what he would do next if Leinster did not renew his contract; he was raised in the Carlow village of Coolkenno.

Between the truths and untruths, a picture of Leinster's player of the month for December emerges that is not wholly inaccurate.

In reference to the above truths he admits, "I thought about going to Italy for a year, to Treviso. I was thinking even if I got back on the Leinster bench would that be good enough to keep the contract. Probably not."

As for Coolkenno, it is a hamlet between Baltinglass and Tullow that you would miss if you glanced sideways to tune the radio from The Right Hookto Drive Time.

The last 12 months for Michael Cheika's first-choice hooker has been laced with personal triumph and a forward momentum once beyond his wildest hopes.

Back then whenever he slid his sweaty 6ft 1in frame from under the bench-press machine at Riverview he'd look up to see his fellow hookers Brian Blaney and Harry Vermaas blocking his career path. When he couldn't get his game with Leinster he was forced, in order to keep battle hardened and sane, into the rough and tumble of the beloved amateur AIL. Now Vermaas has left while Blaney is hungrily eyeing the Leinster number-two shirt, which has become a snug fit on Jackman.

For the one-time touring professional who has arrived back to where he started, via Sale Sharks and Connacht, the last six months have been the most rewarding of a career that has sparked to life at an age when others are fading.

"Before now my throwing probably let me down, to be honest, as well as other aspects of my game - defence maybe," he says. "I don't complain about not being picked regularly for Ireland. All I can do is keep playing and try to force my way in there."

On the promise of free beer and good times, the one-time DCU marketing student joined Lansdowne as an amateur after walking away from an opportunity to join the Wicklow under-21 football panel. In hindsight, it was a prudent decision.

Within a year he was in Clontarf, where presumably the beer was even freer, and after a spell with Leinster he took off on his travels: England, then Galway, then back to Dublin.

At 31 years old he's burning brighter than ever and has become a pivotal part of a Leinster pack that sporadically hints at developing something of a reputation.

A committed coach as well as player, Jackman is instinctively open rather than evasive, explaining things rather than prevaricating or wishing them away. His strength is to talk with honesty and enthusiasm, in the way he might do with the players he coaches at Coolmine rugby club and coached at Newbridge before that.

"Even before my time there were big games where Leinster forwards didn't produce," he says. "I don't even know if we've solved the problem yet. We're working very hard to do that. It's about being consistent and we've got to be consistent for two years, maybe three years, before we get rid of that reputation.

"No, it's not in the head and I can't answer for past packs. I can just answer for the pack I'm in at the moment. I think we're producing good ball but I can't say we're a really good pack until we've been doing it for maybe a year or two years. Until then . . . I'll just keep my mouth shut."

One other thing that is true about Bernard Jackman: as he runs along the touchline, some sections of the crowd at the RDS chant 'da-da, da-da, da-da da-da, JACKMAN' to the tune of Batman.

"I get a bit of abuse over that," he says.

Fringe-free and sideburn-free with just the faintest hint of red follicle on the shaven head, he has the same barber as Keith Wood.

He likes to carry ball like Wood once did. He toured South Africa with Wood in the 1997-1998 season. He has become mobile and strong enough to make impact tackles like Wood once did. Some years ago the Connacht coach Michael Bradley sent him to Killaloe at 7.30 in the morning so the most famous man in the village, Keith Wood, could impart some wisdom on the art of throwing the ball to the lineout.

Jackman does not believe he is Keith Wood but those who like the comparison grasp at aspects of his game.

And now the murmurs are that his form is good enough for Eddie O'Sullivan to be interested, the comparisons will be made whether he likes it or not.

Post-World Cup the Ireland coach understands he could come under pressure to make changes. And he will know Jackman possesses that useful quality of leadership.

"I try to do it (lead) a bit," he says, leaning forward, elbows on the table like a man discussing the price of teabags over the till in Jackman's Newsagents, Kilcullen.

"I really enjoy carrying the ball and try to get go-forward ball as much as I can. And I try to look for some big tackles. I've captained teams in the past and I like to think I show leadership qualities. It's a part of the game I work on."

And is O'Sullivan looking?

"I've always hoped he would. But you would be stupidly optimistic to say if you're third-choice hooker in Leinster that you want to play for Ireland.

" It's turned around. I've kept confidence in myself and tried my best every week trying to keep Michael Cheika (having a cup of tea nearby) happy and stay in the Leinster team. If it leads to something else, good."

Trying hard. All players try hard but some can impart the extreme effort of trying hard. They wear it on the outside, on their faces, in their body language. They act out the difficulty and they focus it on being effective and they never stop. That's what Jackman communicates for the team: effort and the selfless attitude that his body is at Leinster's disposal for 80 minutes.

The hooker leaves the pitch to get patched up probably more often than any other player. His head is a study in cartography, chains of nicks and mountain-range abrasions. Last week against Edinburgh, he departed in the second half with blood trickling from another fresh opening. Cleaned up, he burst back onto the pitch and there was an audible murmur.

Rugby crowds largely comprise players or former players or wannabe players. They are knowledgeable, or at least they are opinionated, and Jackman is close to their preoccupations. But he is at pains to deflect much of the recent acclaim, pointing to the move back to Leinster from Welford Road of his secondrow team-mate Leo Cullen as a catalyst in his ascent from third-choice hooker to da-da, da-da, da-da, JACKMAN.

"My throwing is something that has definitely improved," he explains.

"To be fair, a lot of it is down to Leo's organisational abilities. If you are a hooker, you are throwing into an area that is contested all the time. It is very hard to get a high success rate. Leo has done such a good job actually calling the lineouts that we are getting a lot more free jumps. It's just a matter of hitting the man."

Kicking back with the shades on and the Kings of Leon playing loud on the iPod is not the attitude that rekindled Jackman's career. Keeping Cheika smiling is a short-term end point and a long-term starting point.

As a player, he is ruthlessly hard on cozy thoughts, feelings of satisfaction or wellbeing that might knock him off his game, undermine his appetite for work and pain.

"Satisfied? No. I want to win something with Leinster and I want to play with Ireland," he says. "I'm enjoying it but I know how fickle it is. One bad game and Brian Blaney could be in. An injury and I could be out. Satisfaction is a dangerous word - it sounds like you are content.

"I'm satisfied that I'm back on the team. I'm enjoying it but I'm not content because I want to do better things."

His first game of rugby was on the wing. He then played flanker until the age of 16 and only began playing at hooker on the promise of the school coach that he could revert to flanker the following year when the older boys moved on. He never went back.

And that's another thing that is true about Bernard Jackman.