Tuesday 20 August 2019

Jono Gibbes good to go

Ex-Leinster man landed on his feet in Clermont, says Brendan Fanning

Jono Gibbes
Jono Gibbes

As we speak it is 20 degrees and Jono Gibbes is sitting outside, enjoying a coffee after lunch. Clermont were preparing for yesterday's home tie with Oyonnax - renowned as the most obdurate team in the Top 14 - and their forwards coach was taking a moment, and thinking back to his time in Ireland.

"I tell you, I don't miss the weather," he says. "It's a massive difference here, especially where we are in this part of France. The climate is really dry and it's noticeable. That's one great aspect."

You have to laugh when Kiwis start slagging the Irish weather. Gibbes is from the Waikato, farming country on New Zealand's North Island. The last time we checked its climate wasn't on a par with Southern California, but at least they do get summers worthy of the name. He nearly fell off his chair when hearing of three straight days of lovely sunshine in Dublin last week.

"That'd be your complete summer then, eh?"

Safe to say Gibbes is living the life. Clermont Ferrand is a thriving city, and it's a 25-minute jaunt from his house near the Place de Jaude - the centre of celebrations when the team eventually brought home the Top 14 title, in 2010 - to the surrounding countryside where he can escape for some family time. The landscape, he says, is what you'd see on a drive from Cork up to Kilkenny.

Even those little spins into the Auvergne, with the missus and two kids, take a bit of planning though. He moved there from Leinster last summer, into a hectic environment where just three coaches run virtually the entire show from the Academy up, and in a longer season than he enjoyed in Ireland.

But it's working. Currently Clermont are on course for another top-four finish on the domestic front, with four rounds to go. And in the Champions Cup their fourth straight semi-final, against Saracens on Saturday, promises to be one of the great days in European competition.

"The environment that we play in there will be very positive for us," he says. "It's an hour and 25 minutes up the road and 90 per cent of the crowd will be ours. It's a great venue but unfortunately it's only the 15 guys against the other 15 guys in the middle who'll determine if it's a great occasion or not. Sarries are a team who believe in what they do. Obviously that was rewarded in the quarters in Racing so they'll have no apprehensions about coming over to France to play us. They're confident and they should be. It'll be a great atmosphere, but we need to be focused on what needs to be done on the field."

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He sounds like he has been there a while. You wonder how different a man Gibbes was walking in the door of Stade Marcel Michelin having had six years in Leinster, with five trophies won alongside three coaches. Having arrived in Dublin uptight about his lack of coaching hours, surely the experience gave him a head start in France?

"Some similar reservations, even now, despite my time at Leinster," he says. "Coming into a new environment it's about the same stuff: trying to prove that you can add value really; trying to build relationships with the players; trying to understand the climate you're operating in. So the same anxieties and trepidations."

Can he imagine having done it the other way around - starting in France with neither the coaching experience nor language?

"Ehh, it would have been very difficult. Especially at this club where the expectation is so high - the consistency they've had; the quality of international players they've had. It's a real challenge to show you can add something to them."

And it is a whole different environment. At Leinster, Gibbes might have seen 50 faces come in and out during the course of a season that has four games less than the French domestic programme. It's possible that Clermont's body count might climb to the low 40s this term, but only because they have got to the business end of European competition. Only the grizzled veterans need apply.

"It's a difficult team for the kids to break in to," he says. "Leinster use an enormous amount of players and it's a reflection of having only four pro teams in the country, plus they have a heavy representation in the national group, the player welfare programme - all those different factors create an opportunity for Leinster academy kids to get in and have an opportunity. But there's a strong youth programme here, certainly similar to all the other Top 14 teams. It's a big country with a big number of players but it's probably not packaged as tidily as in Ireland: school; local academy; professional; national. It's not as streamlined, but for them to be part of ASM is a big deal. The club is a big part of the town's identity.

"That's the thing about the Top 14, it's such a hard tournament with 26 games and whoa! If you spend all your time trying to coach development level kids to try and understand it, it would just be too much. That's the benefit of bringing in an international level player. You can short cut a few things.

"So for example Nick Abendanon, Noa Nakaitaci and Zac Guildford - international level players - if you say to them: 'Look, let's make sure we have a back-three field defence,' they get it. That's the reality of the competition. It would be nice to sprinkle in a little bit of development among the seasoned internationals but it's a difficult challenge trying to work out what an easy game is. The reality in the Top 14 is there aren't any."

You'd say there shouldn't be any walkovers in the closing stages of Europe either, but at this stage least season Saracens humiliated Clermont. The 46-6 scoreline was the biggest landslide in a semi-final in 20 years of the premier European competition. That they are together again in Saint Etienne on Saturday is a bonus.

So too for Clermont is the fact that Gibbes is now in their corner. Having someone on their staff who knows what it takes to win these games must spread some assurance.

"It's funny, I've worked with great head coaches and learned a lot off them and I think the consistent things for those three (Heineken) victories was that it's about what you do each day throughout the whole season. That's what gives you confidence. That's probably one of the things we're trying to drive here: let's be good each day, each session. Those are the things that will hold us in good stead for massive occasions like the quarter-final and the semi-final. You try and emphasise the positive behaviours on the field, and give them confidence because that's what got you there."

And the weather will be good too. A hot sun on their backs and a team on top of their game. Gibbes's move to France is looking every bit as good as his decision to take Michael Cheika's offer back in 2008.

"I love it," he says. "I do. And the atmosphere here on Saturday against Northampton was unbelievable. It was incredible. It was like . . . I've had a couple of those: Croke Park against Munster; Clermont away in Bordeaux; but that one last weekend was pretty special. Those are the things that are really enjoyable."

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