Jono Gibbes: Leinster experience ‘doesn’t diminish my desire to beat these guys’
La Rochelle coach spent six fruitful years at the RDS before handing reins to Leo Cullen
La Rochelle director of rugby Jono Gibbes spent six years as Leinster’s forwards coach before handing the reins to Leo Cullen. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The day after La Rochelle were drawn at home against Leinster in next Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final (kick-off 3pm Irish time), Jono Gibbes rang Leo Cullen to exchange pleasantries about their upcoming tussle.
Whereas Gibbes was happy that the two sides would meet up again, he claimed Cullen let on he wasn’t as enamoured with the pairing.
“He knows Toulouse, Racing, Exeter, Saracens but less La Rochelle. There was more work to be done on their side,” he quipped.
The two men shared a fruitful forwards coach/captain relationship for six years at Leinster, winning three Champions Cups, two Pro 14s and a Challenge Cup, and have remained in touch.
Sometimes it is to exchange logistical information, such as which hotel and training ground to use when playing in Montpellier.
“I have a good relationship with Leo. Sometimes we go four or five months without calling each other. But when we talk again, it’s like it was yesterday,” said Gibbes.
“I think coaching, managing, captaining, playing, he’s always had a capacity to stay calm and make good logical assessments and give direction.”
On leaving in 2014 Gibbes said that Leinster was “in good hands” when Cullen succeeded him as forwards coach and described him as “a legend of the club”, adding: “His character remains engraved in my head”.
As is Gibbes’s time in Leinster, during which his wife Marina gave birth to their three kids, Uli, Anthony and Michael.
“When we saw the draw a few weeks back it just brings back emotions. I guess that’s the power of a positive experience. Straight away you remember all the things that you went through and the experiences that you had there.
“Yeah, we won trophies, and that was really an important part of it and that’s what high-level sport is. But for me a lot of the experiences I had there goes beyond that half an hour in the changing shed after you’ve won. I received an unbelievable education from Leinster in the six years that I passed there.
“I think it was formative, it was an important part of my career and my life and I’m really grateful for that, but I can assure you that it doesn’t diminish my desire to beat these guys on Sunday,” he said with a wry smile.
Although those six years were a golden era, Gibbes has seen Leinster’s growth since, notably in playing a different style since Stuart Lancaster came aboard.
“It’s been well documented Stuart’s chaos approach and being comfortable in the chaos. Whilst they have remained very accurate with some structured stuff, they have evolved and become comfortable in the chaos and that’s allowed them to be able to play different kinds of style.”
He also notes Leinster’s improved depth, while “the coherence between whoever plays stays the same”.
Gibbes is bracing his team for Leinster’s unrelenting pressure game.
“It’s 80 minutes, they give you no freebies. Even when you feel maybe you’ve got them under pressure and out of structure they can easily transition back into structure and that chaos. We’re preparing for a big battle of pressure, them trying to build pressure, being comfortable under pressure.”
Titles and roles vary from club to club, but in effect Cullen and Gibbes are now opposing main men, with Lancaster and Ronan O’Gara key coaches, with the latter also up against his old amigo Felipe Contepomi.
“In a nutshell, what we worked on for Ronan was cohesion on the field; all the players knowing what we were trying to do, giving them the plan to implement that. You can see that the team know what they’re trying to do and that was Ronan’s main role,” explained Gibbes.
“My role was cohesion in the environment, the staff and the players; the things that are in place in order to make Ronan’s job easier but also to make things work and have cohesion off the field.
“I don’t think there’s one way to do it, it’s just how it was set up here. Each club, even with Leo and Stuart, each environment determines how that gets split up or determined or created or how it functions day to day.
“There’s no perfect way, it’s just how it suits the environment.”
Each seems to be suiting both pretty well.