The Irishmen who are 'bringing French flair back to French rugby'
While the footballers of Ligue 1 put their feet up over Christmas, the Top 14 rugby players are tearing relentlessly on.
Grenoble will ring in the New Year in the top six but Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast, their Irish coaches, are well aware that the real tests lie ahead and that resolves will be severely tested as the big-spenders exhaust their resources. Jackman and Prendergast led the club to the brink of Champions Cup qualification last year only to fall short in the closing weeks.
Wins over Toulouse (dressing room celebration picture below), Racing Métro and Lyon pushed Grenoble into the top four, in mid December, but festive defeats to league-leading and Stade Francais and La Rochelle have sucked wind from Isére sails.
Prendergast told us, 'This block of four games (over Christmas) will start moulding the table. We have Oyonnax at home, on 3 January, and are away to Bordeaux the following weekend. Some sides in France focus on home ties but we target away matches as areas where we can gain ground on our rivals. There are 10 games left after that block and we need to be right up with the frontrunners to stand a chance of a top finish.
The former Munster scrum-half believes over-confidence and a lengthening injury list cost Grenoble last season but quality additions - Gio Alpon, Chris Farrell, Jonathan Wisniewski and Alapati Ratini - have led to improved performances. They are the league's third highest scorers and are fourth on the 'tries scored' list.
'The way Bernard has set us up to play is enjoyable for the players and it leads to a happier environment. As Bernard likes to say, we are bringing the French flair back into French rugby. Players are getting their hands on a lot more ball and we are playing with width and ambition.
'Alapati is the highest individual tryscorer in the league,' says Prendergast, 'and scored on his Test debut for Fiji, against France, last month. He possesses out-and-out pace and power. He can score from nothing. Jonathan has been a fantastic signing and he suits our style of play very well. He didn't get much gamer time at Racing, behind Johnny Sexton, but has flourished here and I expect him to feature in the Six Nations sooner rather than later.'
Prendergast notes that Grenoble are not in danger of using up their €10.6m cap for salaries and feels the club can continue to press for knock-out and European rugby by recruiting sensibly. Farrell and James Hart are examples of players that have done a job for Grenoble after stalling in Ireland. The backs coach points out, however, that scouting is not focused on Irish talents - Rory Grice (Waikaton Chiefs) and Arnaud Heguy (Biarritz) being two canny recruitments.
Stade, Toulon and Clermont Auvergne are in danger of pulling clear atop the league standings but Grenoble can establish themselves in the top four with early home and away victories in 2015. 'We feel we have a special group of players here. The Champions Cup is our ambition but we know, from last season, never to look too far ahead.'