Monday 11 December 2017

Building on his experience

His Leinster stint was a real education for Jono Gibbes, as he tells Brendan Fanning

Jono Gibbes' Leinster experience has been phenomenal: three Heineken Cups, a Pro12 and an Amlin Cup under two coaches
Jono Gibbes' Leinster experience has been phenomenal: three Heineken Cups, a Pro12 and an Amlin Cup under two coaches
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It was the first week on the job he reckons, a period when he was stumbling along trying to work out what this coaching business was all about. The scene was UCD, summer 2008, and a Leinster scrummaging session featuring a combination of experienced campaigners and those who soon enough would be the backbone of Heineken Cup-winning packs. Jono Gibbes, the new forwards coach, was about to be thrown under the bus.

"We were watching the scrum session and I'd said to Cheiks (Michael Cheika), 'Look can I just watch some stuff 'cos I need to see who's who and what they do?' So they were hitting the sled (scrum machine) and I said to him, 'I think the locks need to change their feet because there wasn't enough speed on the engagement'. I just said this to him. And he goes, 'Ok guys, Jono what was that point about the feet?'

"And I thought, 'Aw fuck, thanks a lot'. I tried to say something and Mal O'Kelly looked at me like, 'I've been doing this for 25 years and you're telling me I'm shit?' It was that kind of feeling. I distinctly remember that. And on one of my first video sessions where I asked for some feedback, the players just f**king blanked me! Those are the two things that made me go, 'Yeah, ok I have no idea about how I'm going to go about this job'."

Six years later and Gibbes and his young family are packing their bags for another great adventure. Having arrived here alone, blissfully ignorant of what was expected of him and how he was going to do it, the Kiwi moves on in a few weeks with a wife, a toddler, an infant, and a suitcase stuffed with great memories.

It all started with a meeting in Sydney. Leinster coach Michael Cheika rang him in Waikato, where he was limping towards the finish line of a Super rugby season with the Chiefs, and got him to fly across the Tasman for a long and interesting chat. They talked about lots of stuff from the ELVs which were dominating rugby at the time, to the culture necessary in a club before you could become successful.

On the surface it seemed Cheika wanted Gibbes as a player. The baby elephant in the room though was the state of the same player's knees. Torn between thinking the softer grounds of Europe and a new environment might get him some more game time, and facing the reality that he was banjaxed, Gibbes was non-committal. After a long day, Cheika dropped him off at departures for the flight back to Auckland.

"Do you really think physically you can do it?" Cheika asked.

"Aw well . . . yeah I do have concerns," Gibbes admitted.

"Ok, I'm just letting you know, we've signed Rocky Elsom," said Cheika. There was an awkward silence. "How would you like to coach?"

It was some time later, when Gibbes learned that Leinster medic Arthur Tanner had already seen his medical records, that he realised he had just been interviewed for the position of forwards coach. Cheika may be a volcanic character but he is not without guile.

It helped that Gibbes – encouraged by his brother Chris who is now forwards coach at the Ospreys – had done some coaching papers in New Zealand. And that as captain for two seasons with the Chiefs he knew what he wanted from a forwards coach. Still, he was walking into a pro team with no track record in the trade. A bit intimidated then?

"No, because I was ignorant," he says. "I look back now and think, 'Holy shit what did you let yourself in for?' But if you're ignorant then you just walk in and, here it is, and you get going. Someone who'd had maybe two years' coaching experience and walked in would probably be shitting themselves because they'd know how big a challenge it is. I didn't really know.

"There's a degree of knowledge required absolutely but I think I had enough from who I worked with and played with. Knowledge is one thing, but how it works day to day – coaching these guys – that's what I didn't know how to do. My organisation wasn't too bad because I'd be a reasonably organised person: I'd have a sort of logical, process methodical way of doing things. Like, looking at building plans and understanding critical paths on projects and all that sort of stuff. It's more the relationships and understanding how we transfer the information, how you understand information that I'm sending to you, how you process it, how you emotionally feel about playing this game. Those are the things that you just don't know if you haven't done it before."

Jono Gibbes grew up in Te Awamutu, a small dairy farming town 20 minutes outside Hamilton. The youngest of five boys, you can picture the scene in the back garden at home. "You had to learn to be competitive," he says. "Or you got run over."

His mother, whose own grandmother is from Co Cavan, has been a big influence in his life. Gibbes' parents, both police officers, split up when the family were in Auckland and she took the boys to the Waikato. It was his mother also who told him, when he was 16, that she wasn't going to pay any more school fees if he didn't pull his head in. That was the end of academia. He went into the building trade and five years later had served his time as a carpenter.

The prospect of going back to that business didn't exactly transfix Gibbes when he knew his knees were giving out and an alternative career was needed. By then he had hit a few glorious highs on the field: eight caps for New Zealand, and captain of the Maori in their first ever success over the Lions, in 2005. He hadn't done enough as an All Black, however, to get beyond the fringe brigade, and he is clear on where that journey came up short.

"To get one cap – unbelievable," he says. "And that first game I remember, and it was a special, special thing for me and my family. I think the difference between eight and 121 caps or something like that? The consistency required – especially in New Zealand, if you're not consistently good they replace you. The level of competition for places is so high. I look back at my All Black involvement that it was awesome to get there but it was disappointing that I didn't consistently deliver enough to get more than eight games. There's a few reasons for that that's helped me understand as a coach what's important."

Had his preparation let him down?

"Yeah, mostly. Talent is one thing, but your discipline? It's not even making sacrifices, it's about making choices. That's one of the key things and I don't think my preparation was good enough, consistently enough, and it came out in my performances. Some of my injury profile? Well, there were things in there I think that reflected my preparation – that's where I've given players now a hard time. It doesn't happen that often but I've hung a bit of my baggage on them because if you've got talent all you've got to do is take responsibility for some of your stuff. I've been lucky enough in Leinster – I haven't had many conversations like that. Very few. But that's kind of how I feel when I look back."

His Leinster experience has been phenomenal: three Heineken Cups, a Pro12 and an Amlin Cup under two coaches. He is as well-liked as he is well-regarded, and clearly his people skills are finely honed given how he has coped with the wildly differing personalities of Cheika, Joe Schmidt and Matt O'Connor.

The highlights from those six years?

"The Croke Park semi-final – just because of the occasion," he says. "The Pro12 final last year because it was such a tense game, even the way the stadium was split, white and blue. My mum came to the Amlin final against Stade and thought it was great because there was a nice feel to it. And I'd said, 'Wait 'til next week (against Ulster) and it won't be anything like that. It'll be ferocious'. To get on the right side of that was good.

"Leo (Cullen) mentioned it before but that time in Twickenham (2012) after the Heineken Cup final when it was just the team, and we were in that room at the top of the stadium waiting for Dave Kearney to do a drugs test. It was awesome. I think also the supporters at the quarter-final against Harlequins in 2009. I think Harlequins made a bollocks of it by sticking all the Leinster supporters in one stand. It was only 6-5 but that crowd, that group of supporters, was awesome."

He doesn't look like he's chasing his tail now trying to get sorted for France. He even had the foresight a few years ago to start casual French lessons on the basis that 30 professional clubs between Top 14 and Pro D2 opened a significant employment window. Better still, he had the smarts to marry a girl much brighter than himself.

Marina, a Ukrainian raised mostly in Canada – they met through Kiwi friends in Vancouver – is proficient in Russian, Ukrainian, French, Spanish, English and some Portuguese.

So when it comes to sorting wi-fi, and land line and satellite tv in their new home in Clermont, you know who'll be making the arrangements. In fact, she's had a head start over here.

"To be fair anything in Ireland that requires customer service I can't do because they can't understand me over the phone," Gibbes says. "Maybe it's my poor grammar – I don't know what it is. It's an incredibly frustrating experience for me!"

We'll see how he goes in the Auvergne then. The beauty of the club's tie-up with Michelin is that already there are a lot of Americans working in the plant so teaching foreigners French is part of the routine. As part of his working day he will be added to the class. Moreover the club are regarded as the best in France at what they do: assimilating overseas players and coaches into their system while educating the locals on the benefits of some Anglo-Saxon discipline.

Clearly Clermont have issues in securing the amount of silverware they chase every season, but as a club they are rock-solid – the antithesis of the moneybags merchants who arrived late and in a great hurry about everything. So he is going to a good place. And they are getting a good man.

"That's the thing about going into Clermont – because of my experiences with Leinster and coaching and working with people I've got a little bit of an idea about how not to go about it, you know? That's the benefit of experience I guess. The last point I would make is how important it is when you've got really strong, genuinely good people like Jenno (Shane Jennings) and Leo (Cullen) in the group, who drive things inside out. For me coming in from the outside with a bit of a slow start, just trying to find my feet – because they are such good people they helped me out. It wasn't a massive problem for them and they were pretty patient with me."

The Clermont crew might have to cut him some slack on his French grammar, but that's the only latitude he will need. His time served in Leinster will look after the rest.

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