The Dragons have yet to confirm it, but Bernard Jackman has been sacked as head coach following poor results, a public rap over the knuckles from the Welsh Rugby Union for criticising a referee last month, and then an embarrassing home thrashing against a Leinster team full of kids. Jamie Phillips says Jackman had to take responsibility, but he also deserves some credit.
On 12th June, 2017 former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman was announced by the Welsh Rugby Union as the new coach of Welsh rugby’s perennial strugglers, the Dragons.
He came to Gwent with the highest of recommendations from Wales coach Warren Gatland, who said this at the time:
“Bernard is an ideal fit for the Dragons and I know he will be work diligently and exhaustively to ensure that the set-up both on and off the pitch at Rodney Parade is of the very highest quality.
“He will be a huge asset to the region, he will create the right environment to allow a talented group to become even better players at the Dragons, and he is someone in whom the supporters can put their trust as he will work tirelessly in his pursuit of success.”
High praise, indeed, but the appointment of Jackman was a surprise to some considering his acrimonious departure from Grenoble.
Jackman joined the French club in 2011 and first worked as a consultant before he was appointed director of rugby in 2016. Under Jackman’s leadership, Grenoble struggled and were eventually relegated from the Top 14.
The French media reported that players found his physical training methods too hard, but worst of all Jackman banned desserts! Their poor form and player revolt cost Jackman his job.
However, the WRU and Gatland believed the former Leinster player had the coaching talent to succeed if he was given the right backing. His departure from France could be put down to the quirks of his employers and their mollycoddled, sweet-toothed players, they felt.
This was to be a fresh start for the WRU-owned Dragons and for Jackman himself. Could the 43-year-old deliver good times to Rodney Parade and give long-suffering supporters something to smile about?
Unfortunately, no has been the answer. But let’s examine why not – the best and the worst of this Jackman’s Wolverine in Wales adventure.
What Jackman got right:
Jackman inherited a very poor and amateur set-up at the Dragons. The region was under-resourced and they were lacking in certain areas of their backroom staff. He addressed that by bolstering his coaching staff – bringing in more specialist coaches, analysts and nutritionists, thus creating a more professional back room set-up.
Although the appointment of South African defence coach Hendré Marnitz proved a disaster. The Dragons defence was better when they didn’t have a specialist defence coach.
Jackman’s determination to engage with the clubs in Gwent was admirable. He visited rugby clubs throughout the region, holding open evenings and Q&A’s.
It felt at times like he was single-handedly running the Dragons rugby operation – more like a shrewd and modern-minded PR man than a rugby coach.
Where previously, the Dragons had a voice really heard, here was a coach willing to debate with supporters on social media.
Whether it actually worked or not is debatable itself, but Jackman’s efforts to engage with communities in the region can’t be faulted.
There are a lot of talented young players in Gwent and Jackman deserves credit for bringing many of them though.
Congrats to the 6 players making their @dragonsrugby debuts tomorrow in our @PRO14Official match v @BenettonRugby and @Shanksey20 who makes his 150th appearance in the Competition pic.twitter.com/cgTar2AB4c
— Bernard Jackman (@bernardjackman) August 31, 2018
On occasions he had to because of an injury crisis, but rightly or wrongly, in his first season he snubbed senior players in favour of youth.
Players such as Dan Babos, Taine Basham, Connor Edwards, Arwel Robson, Jared Rosser (and many more) were all given an opportunity under Jackman. In the short term it cost the region results, but long term it could pay dividends.
What Jackman got wrong:
Jackman admitted himself in his first season that there were things he got wrong – such as the training intensity being too high and players being told too early in the season they were leaving.
This caused the group to destabilise. Jackman wrote off some players too quickly. Were players such as Phil Price, Angus O’Brien and Sam Beard ever given a fair crack of the whip?
Jackman’s man-management of certain players was called into question at times. He famously threw his players under the bus after the 47-13 thumping to the Scarlets in January 2018, leading many fans and pundits – such as Jonathan Davies – to criticise Jackman’s outburst.
Jackman was no doubt trying an old school kick up the backside but it didn’t work as the Dragons failed win a Guinness Pro 14 league game for the rest of the season.
One of the many criticisms levelled at Jackman was for “talking the talk but not walking the walk.”
It’s easy to see why. Throughout the course of his first season, fans were frequently told that this campaign would be better than the last.
But, unfortunately, not enough improvement was made – and not at the pace expected – for him to keep his job.
After the defeat to Edinburgh in February at Ebbw Vale, he said there would be a “star signing” which got fans very excited. There wasn’t one.
The only real star signing was Ross Moriarty but that was done back in November 2017. Maybe the “star” signing pulled out? Maybe, it would be been wiser to keep schtum until the player actually signed on the dotted line?
There have been many dreadful results over the years for the Dragons, but the Parc Y Scarlets surrender in Llanelli, the Southern Kings debacle in Port Elizabeth, and the nine-try try hammering at home to Leinster’s thirds were amongst the worst performances in the Dragons’ history.
All of those wretched days were under Jackman’s stewardship, an era when 40+ point defeats became the norm, became acceptable. Something had to change – and it’s no surprise it’s the head coach.
Jackman came into a very difficult job and it’s unfair to lay all the blame at his door. Sacking him won’t cure all the ills at the Dragons but it could bring better results.
The problems at Rodney Parade are deeper rooted than just coaching and although people will question Jackman’s methods, there’s no doubt he tried his best and his vision and intentions for Dragons rugby were honourable. He is a good bloke and I wish him well for the future.
The problem was, in some ways, that Jackman was the architect of his own downfall. He promised much, but delivered little.
Supporters were frequently told that this season would be better than the last but sadly that wasn’t the case, with little to no progress being made.
The ‘jam tomorrow’ approach is always a risky one. Jackman had more resources and backroom staff given to him than any of his predecessors, had yet results and performances that were still poor.
Lyn Jones and Kingsley Jones – who are derided by some Dragons fans – achieved more with far less at their disposal.
Jackman’s record at the region was: played 44, won 11, lost 31, and drawn 2.
Professional sport is a results based business and although supporters are frequently reminded that the Dragons are “rebuilding” chairman David Buttress and the board can’t keep using that as an excuse for ever.
Fans need to see some actual progress being made. No more false dawns.
The Dragons are the laughing stock of Welsh rugby. There’s no sugar-coating it. Results are poor and the crowds are dwindling.
The WRU had to act and it’s really important now that they employ the right man for the job. They need an experienced coach who has some success on his CV.
It’s a tough job coaching the Dragons, but it’s not undesirable. The results have not reflected it but there is a decent squad of players there now. In fact, the Dragons had a record six players – Ross Moriarty, Cory Hill, Elliot Dee, Aaron Wainwright, Leon Brown and Tyler Morgan – in the Wales match-day 23 for last month’s victory over Tonga.
Money is tight at Rodney Parade, though, so it will be a case of mostly making do with what you have at your disposal. That means they simply cannot afford to take another punt on an unproven coach.
They have to get this appointment right. The future of professional rugby in Gwent depends on it.