Monday 19 November 2018

Ulster's coach Jono Gibbes has an extraordinary record of achievement with a wide variety of players


Ulster coach Jono Gibbes. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster coach Jono Gibbes. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Jono Gibbes likes to portray himself as the rugby equivalent of Lucky Luke, the cult cowboy who wasn't exactly silver-tongued but could draw his gun before his own shadow got up to speed. In Gibbes' case, instead of a six-shooter he has the enviable knack of being in exactly the right place at the right time.

This, he explains, is how he was on hand in Leinster at the tail end of the Michael Cheika era when they won their first Heineken Cup. And how he was retained through the three seasons of the Joe Schmidt reign when another two Heinekens were filled, along with a Pro12 title and a Challenge Cup.

Leinster were keen to keep him on when they were ditching Schmidt's successor, Matt O'Connor, by which time another Pro12 trophy had been stored in the cabinet, with Gibbes still on the premises.

And when he left Clermont for Ulster a few months ago it was just after the Auvergnians were still celebrating the arrival of the Top 14 title - only the second in the club's history, a storied relationship with a lot more downs than ups.

So the Kiwi's modest version of events is that he's blessed. Surely, however, his luckiest moment on a rugby field was shortly before he left Leinster for France. It was November 2013 and Leinster were wrapping up training before catching a flight to Venice for the Pro12 game with Treviso, when Gibbes had a heart incident that caused him to topple over. The lucky bit was that medics were on hand and all over him like a rash. Seemingly had it happened a few hours later, when he would have been somewhere over the continent, the outcome might have been entirely different.

If Gibbes is uncomfortable expanding on his stellar CV, it's nothing compared to chatting about this little speed bump.

"Nah, I was in the right place - where I was meant to be (rather than on the flight)," he says, reluctantly. "I don't know if it's important is it?"

Well, it is if you earn your corn in a highly stressful job that might also involve a bit of running around.

"Ah there was only one moment that was scary and it passed pretty quickly. It didn't make me think (about anything important). It's an experience that shapes you, but losing to Stade Francais (Top 14 final, 2015) shaped me as well. You're just grateful for the people around you - that's all. So you had John Ryan, legend, Arthur (Tanner), God bless him, you had Gareth (Farrell). You just had good guys there."

And any impact on his career subsequently?

"Nah, I'm going ok."

From the noises we hear coming out of Ravenhill he's going a bit better than ok. Gibbes arrived into a difficult situation. The coaching wires between Les Kiss, Neil Doak and Allen Clarke had become irretrievably crossed. The only baggage Gibbes brought with him was the stack of trophies he had helped to win at Leinster and Clermont. Still, the players were a bit wary. We understand they are well pleased with how things are working out.

The French experience is one Gibbes says he enjoyed and was still enjoying when Ulster and Clermont's paths crossed last season just as Kiss was considering a cabinet reshuffle. Even so, with his boss Franck Azema (pictured right) nailed on for another few seasons, it made sense for the assistant to look elsewhere if he wanted to step up to a head coach role. Kiss has given him room to do just that, Which allows Gibbes to feed in some of what he picked up on his travels.

"I think in France the biggest lesson I learned is you can have the best team, the best coaches, the best players, the best of everything, but if you don't have a spirit and a connection together, a feeling of togetherness - literally an esprit de corps - it doesn't work. And on the flip side you can have averagely good players, averagely good coaches but if you build something and they feel good together, over in France in the Top 14 you can actually overcome a hell of a lot of differences between playing rosters and budgets."

Clermont aren't exactly paupers but they pay great attention to the spirit factor. And given their history they'd need it. You wouldn't need a connection to the club to feel anxious when they are playing a big game such is their history of reaching for gold and picking up silver. Losing the Champions Cup final in 2015 to Toulon was another case in point - their second of three European final defeats in five seasons - but by no means the most painful. For Toulon, it was three in a row. They were untouchable at the time.

"I don't think there were any mitigating circumstances," Gibbes says. "They were a better team because they forced us under pressure to make mistakes and not be clinical and that's what a good team does, whereas I'd say the Top 14 final in 2015 was an absolutely horrific experience because Stade Francais weren't better than us.

"And that one really scarred. That one you can talk about some deep cuts. It was really tough to take. So you reflect on what's missing from our preparation that means we're not getting past a team like Stade Francais. But out of that loss you look at your preparation and you think you've been deep enough in your questioning, and think it's all good, and then you have the horror run in your (European) pool play where you don't get out of your pool. Those are two tough events within the space of six to nine months to go through. But I think the quality of that club and the quality in that group - ok, they took two massive daggers to the heart, but they got back to the right side of that."

The perfect illustration of that recovery was in the Top 14 title last season. Clermont's history in finals in that competition had been truly woeful: going to the start line against Toulon last June they had lost 11 of their 12 finals. By close of business that day in Paris, it was 11 of 13.

"Honestly, it was unbelievable," he says. "It really was, but the thing was the price you have to pay to win a Top 14 is expensive. It costs a lot. You've got to master different styles of game; you've got to master good oppositions; you play summer-winter-summer; you've got to play a long time; you've got international stuff, injuries, some teams playing in Europe - what you've actually to get through and get past and still arrive in one piece at the end. That's why it's deeper than Europe to them. Look at Europe: nine games - we love the Heineken Cup. It's a great competition and I'm not questioning its status, it's the pinnacle, but what pool did you get drawn in, did you get a home or away quarter, who drew the home semi?

"Sometimes emotion can push you into a darker place that you think you haven't been to before and it can actually get you through something that's quite difficult on the field and that's when you've got to harness it. I think if you have emotion without purpose . . . if we're clear on what we're trying to do then you certainly do understand the role of emotion without purpose - you can definitely see that sometimes.

"But I'll tell you, the feeling of being in a changing shed with them and you can cut it (the atmosphere). You know that these guys are going to destroy this team. That's quite good to be around! I'd say Exeter away in Europe last year they came back into the changing shed after the warm-up to get their jerseys on and go back out, and there's a huddle, and you know what's about to happen. And then Franck just said: 'No one talk. Let's just calm ourselves. Take a breath. We know what we're going to do.' No one said anything. And it was just like . . . I'm actually getting goose bumps now. And that's what emotion with purpose feels like."

There are some similarities between what faced Gibbes in Clermont and what he's working with now in Ulster. Both clubs have a rock-solid, clearly-defined support base. Both have expectations of high achievement. It would be a stretch though to put Ulster in the same bracket as the French club for sheer consistency of competitiveness over two competitions in the last 10 years.

Gibbes can't do a lot about the depth of the player base up north, but his record of achievement is extraordinary with a wide variety of nationalities, and personalities, since his first tentative steps as a forwards coach with Leinster in summer 2008. And that's a useful tool for Ulster to have in their bag going to work in La Rochelle this afternoon. The prospect of success against such an in-form team excites him.

"Yeah, it'd be awesome. I think what's good about Sunday is that with the timing it's the second game of the pool so we can go out there and attack that game. We're going to play such a good confident team away from home - not hostile but a difficult environment, really high pressure. They're going to be pushing our buttons. So in October we get a game we can really get our teeth into. Don't bite off more than you can chew? Well, how about a massive bite and chew like hell!"

With yet another bit of luck it will be a meal to savour.

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