WITH SIMON ZEBO and Michael Alaalatoa’s moves to Munster and Leinster confirmed this week, the issue of recruitment in rugby is more topical than ever.
This week’s episode of The42 Rugby Weekly podcast saw former Grenoble and Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman provide a compelling insight into how recruitment works in the professional game.
Bernard Jackman during his time in Grenoble. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Bernard spoke about succession planning, depth charts, squad budgets, agents, the media, and how deals are made in a jam-packed episode that also involved a preview of Ireland’s clash with France in the Women’s Six Nations.
While Bernard’s in-depth explanations underlined just how much long-term work can go into some signings, he also shared a story from his time with Grenoble that shows how quickly transfers can come about at times.
“Recruiting players can be very scientific but there are always late changes,” said Bernard.
“In my first two years in Grenoble, I was sub-contracted to look after the foreign players and my boss looked after all the French players. I loved it, I spent so much time on Opta (scouting match footage), I spent so much time talking to contacts trying to find the best options.
“At one stage, I was coming home to Ireland for Mike Prendergast’s wedding, which was on a Thursday, and I was coming home on the Wednesday. The season was over and we had done all our recruitment.
“I went to my boss on the Tuesday and asked if we were done. He said we were done, no more money, we have all the foreign player spots filled. He told me I was done, so I said I would leave my laptop and go back to the wedding. I was thinking there was no chance of anything else happening because we had no money and no spots for foreigners.
“I flew home, landed back to Dublin airport, and had a message waiting from my boss – Fabrice Landreau – saying, ‘Ring me, ring me.’ I called him and he said we needed a second row. He had spoken to the president, the club had got a sponsor, we could get a second row.
“I said, ‘I thought we had no foreigner places left’ but he said we needed to get a young second row who could go into the academy. They wouldn’t be JIFF-qualified but there was a little loophole, so they had to be 20 or 21.
Paul Willemse is now a first-choice player for France. Source: Poupart Julien/ABACA
“He told me he had spoken to some agents and there were two live candidates but the problem was we had to sign them by Friday because that was the deadline. I asked who the two guys were and he said Tomás Lavanini who plays for Argentina and Paul Willemse who plays for the Bulls.
“I knew the two of them – they were young but already playing professional rugby, one playing international rugby. I told Fabrice to let me see what I could do.
“Ireland were on a two-match tour to Argentina at the time so I rang Paul O’Connell and asked him about playing against Lavanini. He said, ‘He’s an absolute animal, he was going around the place melting people.’
“So then I rang a friend of mine who was involved in the Bulls academy and asked about Willemse. He said, ‘This guy is an absolute monster. He’s probably not made for Super Rugby but in France he would be unbelievable. He’s 132kg, he’s mean, he’s going to get better.’
“I was thinking this was just unbelievable – I knew they were both good but these were two really positive references. I rang my boss and said to take one of them. He said to leave it with him.
“Sorry about this Mike… but I was in the church checking my phone every two minutes for any news. I got Fabrice on the phone after the mass and he said he didn’t know which one of them to get.
“I asked what price they were. Basically, one was double the cost of the other. Grenoble had no money for years, so I said to go for the cheaper one. It turned out the cheaper one had actually signed for Racing, the agent was full of shit.
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“So we got a deal done for Paul pretty much on Friday afternoon. It was like what you see in England with Deadline Day Fever – it went all the way to one hour from the deadline and we got the paperwork back from Pretoria and we signed Paul Willemse.