This time a year ago, The Touchline featured an Exiled Irish piece on four Irish professionals contracted in France. Picking up in that vein, this article looks at the growing Irish community at French Top 14 club Grenoble. The Isère-based outfit currently have two Irish players on their cards, as well as a coach. James Hart and Andrew Farley are at very different stages of their careers, but both are enjoying success at Grenoble. The experiences of Hart should encourage young Irish players who miss out on Academy and provincial contracts that there are other options, while Farley’s example will surely inspire older professionals to try something different.
Meanwhile, the success of Bernard Jackman in his first season at Grenoble will be equally encouraging to young Irish coaches, as well as to other French clubs. With Jackman’s positive impact comes more international acceptance of the quality of Irish coaches. The news that Mike Pendergast will join Jackman as Grenoble’s Skills Coach may be a sign of things to come for Irish backroom staff. With 30 professional clubs spread over the Top 14 and Pro D2, as well as a host of semi-pro teams in Fédérale 1, there is far greater need for good coaches. The more Irish players and coaches we can have playing and working regularly in a professional environment, the better Irish rugby will be.
Hart’s move to Grenoble last summer was one that flew well under the radar. The 21-year-old halfback is Dublin-born and attended Belvedere College. His mother hails from Toulouse, and Hart’s rugby education was kick-started there. At the age of 16, Hart moved to Toulouse for transition year, living with his grandparents. He stayed for 8 months, playing for Stade Toulousain’s Cadet team alongside the likes of Jean-Marc Doussain and Nicolas Bézy. Hart claims that period made him “physically and technically stronger“. He returned to Ireland to play Schools Senior Cup, as well as for Leinster up to U20 level.
Having graduated from school in 2010, and with no Academy offer from Leinster, Hart joined AIL side Clontarf, where he was coached by Bernard Jackman. This relationship resulted in Hart joining Grenoble a year later, in the summer of 2011. His first season at FCG saw the halfback play for the Espoirs side (U23 level), while training with the pro side. This season has seen Hart make big strides. He made his first senior start last December, playing outhalf in FCG’s 20-9 win over London Welsh in the Challenge Cup. Substitue appearances followed in the return match and against Stade Francais in the same competition.
The 83kg Dubliner had to wait a little longer for his first Top 14 chance. Last month, he started at scrumhalf in the 33-16 loss away to Biarritz and then came off the bench against Bayonne just 2 weeks ago. Hart’s goal-kicking skills have seen him convert 3 penalties (one of which earned FCG a losing bonus point in the last minute) and 2 conversions in his 5 appearances so far. Grenoble appear to see the youngster as a scrumhalf, but he has plenty of experience at outhalf. He also played in the centre for Clontarf (as shown in the video above). His impressive progress this season has resulted in him signing a new two-year deal. Certainly one to watch next season for Irish rugby fans.
Grenoble Profile: James Hart
Farley was one of those featured in the original Exiled Irish piece mentioned above. Born in Australia (and capped at U19 and U21 level), the second-row qualified for Ireland on residency grounds after 5 seasons with Connacht. That spell followed short stints in Italy with L’Aquila (under Mike Brewer) and Wales with Swansea. The Brisbane-native was part of the Ireland ‘A’ side who won the Plate at the 2007 Churchill Cup. In 2009, Farley decided to take up an offer from Grenoble, then in Pro D2, and hasn’t looked back since.
His first season at the Isère club saw them finish 6th, before agonisingly missing out on automatic promotion to the Top 14 by just 2 points in the ’10/11 season. Already a key player thanks to his excellent line-out work and leadership, the 112kg lock was installed as captain that season. The following year, FCG stormed to the Pro D2 title, 18 points clear of 2nd-placed Pau. Most promoted sides have serious struggles in the Top 14, but that hasn’t been the case for Grenoble. Their excellent start to the season meant they were realistically safe by Christmas. Last weekend’s stunning last-gasp win over Toulon left them 9th, with just one game to go.
32-year-old Farley has enjoyed 14 starts in the league campaign as well as 5 in the Challenge Cup. His form shows no sign of decline and he recently penned a new deal keeping him in France until the end of the ’13/14 season, with the option of another year. Grenoble are an ambitious club and look set to continue their rise. Adopted Irish man Farley will continue to play a key part.
Grenoble Profile: Andrew Farley Twitter: @BruceFarls
Ex-Ireland, Leinster and Connacht hooker Jackman is coming to the end of his first full season as the club’s Defence Coach. The Tullow-native’s playing career saw him win 9 caps for Ireland, as well as a Heineken Cup with Leinster in 2009. He also enjoyed a spell with Sale, where he won a Challenge Cup. His coaching career began in 2005 at Newbridge Rugby Club. He led Newbridge to Leinster League Division 3 title and a Lalor Cup, before taking over at Coolmine RFC in 2007. Success followed again, culminating with the Dublin 15 side winning Leinster League Division 2 in 2009.
Jackman’s long-time club side Clontarf came calling in 2009, and he joined as Head Coach. With the Leinster hooker still playing at that stage, the ’09/10 season saw them relegated from Division 1A of the then AIB League. However, having retired from playing ahead of the ’10/11 season, Jackman helped the club bounce straight back up. The summer of 2011 saw Jackman resign for “professional developmental reasons” and he went on a two-month consultancy period with Grenoble, then in the Pro D2. Head Coach Fabrice Landreau was evidently impressed and Jackman signed on full-time for the start of the current season.
FCG’s promotion to the Top 14 meant Jackman was stepping into the fire in his new role as Defence and Skills Coach. However, Jackman and the rest of the coaching staff enjoyed a hugely positive start to the season, winning 10 of their first 15 league matches up until the New Year. Since then, the wins have been rare, just 1 in 9 games until last weekend’s win over Toulon. Still, for a promoted team it’s been a fantastic first season back in the top flight. Jackman has made a big impression and recently signed a new 1-year contract with the club, with a new title of Defence and Collisions coach. It’s great to see Irish coaches working in technical roles such as this at a top-level. That knowledge can hopefully help the Irish provinces and national team at some stage. Still only 36, Jackman has a long coaching career ahead of him. His rise looks set to continue.
Grenoble Profile: Bernard Jackman Twitter: @bernardjackman
Grenoble’s last game of the season is in two week’s time, May the 4th, away to Toulouse. They’re 9th (joint-8th really) heading into that game, but nothing is decided yet. Depending on the outcome, and results elsewhere, they could finish anywhere from 8th to 11th. Their achievements look all the better when you compare them to the other promoted side, Mont de Marsan. They’ve won just 2 league games all season. Grenoble are a hugely ambitious club, and should push on again next year.
Photos: Vijay Photwalk, Paul Walsh.