“TOULON IN TOULON; with the squad and everything they have going on, to win down there was massive.”
Grenoble’s 22-21 victory over the reigning Heineken Cup champions was the result of the weekend in France and beyond. Skills coach Mike Prendergast underlined the achievement by mentioning Toulon’s magnificent home record, one which had last seen them lose at the Stade Mayol on the 19th of January, 2013.
“It was massive. I don’t think Toulon have been beaten down there in a year and the thing is that they had all their big guns playing as well. I suppose the way it ended up, we defended well.
“You could just see from the get-go that the mentality was right and our line speed was there. I thought defensively we frustrated them more than anything. With the score all day, there was just three, six or nine points in it. So we took our points and they took their points.
To get an intercept try near the end and hold out in the last few minutes with a bit of pressure is great. We’ve taken a few scalps this year, but to be fair that’s the biggest.”
It is certainly the most remarkable victory of Grenoble’s campaign so far, but the fact that they now lie sixth in the Top 14 table - inside the play-off positions – tells the true story. Wins over Stade Français, Racing Métro and Toulon at home have been the other highlights.
Indeed, it is getting to the point where these big results for Grenoble are not quite in the ‘shock’ category anymore; this is a serious outfit. The ability to perform well on the road has been one of the keys to their success. Three wins away from home, as well as three bonus points, have bucked a long-standing French trend.
Prendergast points out the importance of Grenoble’s attitude on their travels, a contrast to so many other clubs.
“That’s been a really, really positive thing for us. A lot of teams near the bottom or middle of the league look at targeting their home games, but we’ve had a bit of a different mentality here and it’s something that myself and Bernard do drive.”
Prendergast arrived at Grenoble last summer from Young Munster. ©INPHO/James Crombie.
Another key element to Grenoble’s rise up the table – they finished 11th last season – has been the visible team spirit and passion the players bring to each game. The squad may be lacking in household names, but Prendergast points out that that means “maybe we’ve to work a small bit harder during the week.”
The former Munster scrum-half mentions the Grenoble’s “chip on the shoulder” and images of his home province immediately spring to mind. Munster’s Heineken Cup successes in the 2000s were driven by a core of talented players, but all of them admit that bitter attitude was the real key.
With 10 games left in the Top 14 season – six of which are at home for Grenoble – the possibility of Heineken Cup qualification is real. Prendergast admits that the Isére-based club had planned for this season with the goal of simply cementing their place in France’s top tier at the forefront of their minds.
“I think realistically from the outset, it [our aim] was to maintain our status again this year. But we had a few good early results, and I suppose when that happens it gives you confidence. The way the league has panned out this year, there’s very little between the bottom teams and the top.”
You’ve the likes of Oyonnax winning often and we’re still only 11 points off second last. That’s three or four games going against you. I suppose where we are after Toulon does kind of open your eyes to pushing into Europe, which would be great.
“I know the players are hungry; we’ve a lot of foreign players here and Heineken Cup would be huge to them, and the French guys.”
That Grenoble are at this point is a major credit to the work of the coaching staff led by former France international hooker Fabrice Landreau. Prendergast himself has been a key man in developing Grenoble’s game in his role as skills coach.
There have been notably more frequent glimpses of handling ability in Grenoble’s important wins this season, a clear sign of Prendergast’s input. In his first year with a fully professional club after working as Director of Rugby at Young Munster, the 36-year-old is thriving.
Such has been his impact, that the one-time Gloucester player will be promoted to the role of backs coach next season. Prendergast claims that fellow Irishman Bernard Jackman – FCG’s defence coach – has been an integral figure in his integration into the club.
“Bernard has been a massive, massive help here. Whatever about having one Irish coach, to have two at a French club is great. I owe massive credit to Bernard.
Prendergast was playing for the Cookies as recently as March 2013. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.
“We’ve also got James Hart here from Dublin; we’ve Andrew Farley, who spent six years at Connacht and played for Ireland ‘A’. We’ve Shane O’Leary as well, who I had at Young Munster. There’s a nice little group here.”
22-year-old Hart has made impressive strides on the pitch this season, while young O’Leary has featured in the club’s Amlin Challenge Cup campaign and is settling into life in Grenoble well. That Irish core has certainly aided Prendergast’s adaptation, but there was still plenty of pressure on him.
Having spent a season with Bourgoin in 2006/07, Prendergast did have some rusty French on arrival, but getting his ideas across to the players and coaches in French was a testing challenge.
“[The] first day it was sink or swim. I spent the year here seven years ago, but you’d lose a good bit of it [French]. I did a fair few classes before I came out. They’ll pull you up at times, but it’s something I work hard on.
“We do two classes a week, but I’ll probably go to three a week with taking on the backs next season!”
Life at the foot of the French alps is sweet for Prendergast after the initial difficulties, with himself, his partner Shona and eight-year-old daughter Emma living in the “quaint French village” of Claix.
With the little pocket of Irish natives thriving in Grenoble, will Prendergast be attempting to bring a few more players from these shores over to the Top 14?
I don’t think I’d be too popular at home if people started leaving,” he laughs. “It’s just the way it’s materialised with James and Shane.
“James came over through Bernard and Shane had played with Canada U20s. He was looking around France and a couple of clubs were interested, including Grenoble. I gave him a good reference, which he deserved.”
Prendergast does agree that for young players like O’Leary and Hart, who don’t make the provincial academies, a move abroad can be a good thing, particularly if it means talented young players are not lost to the game.
He points out that it can be “tough as well” to uproot and leave behind friends and family, but there are so many positives to joining the growing Irish legion in France. One point that is often missed is how these young men can gain “life experience” as well as furthering their professional ambitions.
That’s certainly been an enjoyable element of Prendergast’s time in France so far, alongside the clear progression of his coaching career. There is plenty more to come.
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