Gibbes mak­ing his own good luck

Ul­ster’s coach has an ex­tra­or­di­nary record of achieve­ment with a wide va­ri­ety of play­ers

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - 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.

The bag­gage Gibbes brought was the tro­phies he had helped to win at Le­in­ster and Cler­mont

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