Jono Gibbes makes Ireland his port of call again
Former All Black will arrive at Ulster having thrived out of comfort zone at Clermont
Clermont Auvergne forwards coach Jono Gibbes is looking forward to teaming up with Les Kiss. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Where to begin with Jono Gibbes? Waikato stadium, June 11th 2005, and that stirring version of Timatanga seems as good a place as any.
There he stood, beast of the blindside, jaw jutting towards Richard Hill and Brian O’Driscoll, eyes bulging from skull, flanked by Carlos Spencer and Rico Gear as future Munster centre Rua Tipoki tipped the Maori spear.
Greg Feek was also among a gang loaded with All Blacks to soften up touring Lions.
“Wow,” said New Zealand commentator Grant Nesbitt as the slow-motion haka replay showed Gibbes in full ferocious flow, “that ranks. That really ranks. It’s all about the gathering of young warriors and their quest for unity, knowledge and excellence.
“The captain, Jono Gibbes, what a night for him.”
“If they play like that,” observed the co-commentator, “the Lions are in for hell.”
And they did bring hell, with Spencer conjuring the decisive assault for Leon MacDonald’s try in a 19-13 victory, but it was Gibbes who epitomised everything feared and respected about New Zealand rugby, about their way of life.
Somewhat disappointingly, that night proved the 28-year-old’s high water mark as a player. An injury-ravaged career meant Gibbes played only eight Test matches during the 2004/05 season. Really, he fell between the proverbial stools of lock and flanker. At 6ft4 ½in he was never tall enough to slot alongside Chris Jack or Ali Williams, while the late Jerry Collins and Jerome Kaino duopolised the All Blacks number six jersey.
A move to the Ospreys was scuppered in 2006 after he re-signed for three more years with the Chiefs, but come the summer of 2008, when he should have been living his prime, Michael Cheika made him Leinster forwards coach after Mike Brewer took over the Scottish pack.
Brewer, an All Black legend, recommended the 31-year-old.
“Any player will tell you that the day you finish playing is one of the hardest in your life,” said Gibbes at the time. “I have always wanted to coach in a professional set-up and even though I suffered injuries over the last few years, I have gained a lot of experience working with the New Zealand representative teams, Waikato and Chiefs sides over my professional playing career.”
The appointment coincided with Leinster’s launch into the stratosphere, capturing three European titles in the next three years, all with Gibbes quietly toiling in the background.
When Joe Schmidt succeeded Declan Kidney as Ireland coach in July 2013, Gibbes had another season to run on his contract.
“I considered putting my name forward for the Leinster job but there were a few factors that helped me decide [against it],” he said. “I sought some pretty good counsel. I feel I’m still a young coach and I could learn something off Matt O’Connor. My ambition is to progress as high as I can as a coach, whether that’s head coaching or Test rugby. Timing-wise it wasn’t this time right now.”
Now is that time. In July Gibbes takes up the head coaching role at Ulster as Les Kiss finally appoints a man of his choosing in an attempt to make a success of his time in Belfast.
“I think the key thing as coaches is that you’ve got to have strong relationships,” said Gibbes just after O’Connor’s ill-fated arrival in Dublin. “It’s important there’s a good trust amongst all of them because, you know, results are what you’re judged on but there’s so much work that has to go into getting results.
“You need a bit of a thick skin as a coaching unit and you need to stay tight. It’s hard for me to say what that relationship will be like. My first impression of him was a very good one: get used to the accent and, yeah, we’ll see in a year’s time really.”
When that year passed, with Leinster adjusting to the loss of key figures and O’Connor falling foul of everyone above him, Gibbes rejected a contract extension to instead fill the void left at ASM Clermont Auvergne by Vern Cotter taking the Scotland job.
“We offered him a new contract here,” said Guy Easterby, Leinster’s head of operations.
“But he took the decision to move to France, where he couldn’t speak the language. Move a family there. That was a brave decision because he could have stayed and we would have been very happy with him. He took an ambitious decision and one that has probably been proven to be the right decision. He’s put himself in difficult positions, made himself uncomfortable, and grown through that. I think Ulster will definitely benefit not just from his time here but those years in Clermont too.”
Life seems to have worked out for everyone; O’Connor is safely back at Leicester, while Leinster, mainly due to Stuart Lancaster’s arrival, look like a club reborn. Meanwhile Clermont and the Top 14 offered Gibbes a supervised Masters degree in coaching.
“The Vern Cotter and Franck Azéma dynamic had worked so well that we decided to try something similar with Franck and Jono,” explained long-serving Clermont manager Neil McIlroy. “We formed a partnership with a similar balance as we had been reasonably successful with a head coach as a Kiwi and an Anglo-Saxon mix within our coaching staff.
“Next season we will have the first all-French coaching staff since 2004.”
Bernard Goutta will replace Gibbes as Clermont leans closer to a Catalonian influence.
“But Jono understands the French psyche,” McIlroy added. “He gets it.”
Club captain Damien Chouly and other members of this gargantuan pack get him too. In December 2014, after Clermont bludgeoned Munster in Thomond Park, Gibbes took shelter from a torrid Limerick night to speak with a few Irish journalists.
“I wanted to make sure we didn’t get embarrassed here,” he said. “Pride was my main motivation.”
“It happened naturally enough,” said Gibbes of way Clermont targeted certain Munster men. “Peter O’Mahony is a massive carrier, Paulie’s [Paul O’Connell] a massive work horse. Those guys are inevitably going to get the ball in their hands.”
By then Gibbes’ departure from Leinster had left a ripple that continues to this day. Leo Cullen, like Gibbes, went straight from playing to forwards coach but when O’Connor was sacked in 2015, Gibbes, again, knew to leave the vacancy well alone. It meant Cullen, despite a gaping hole of inexperience, was unable to resist the opportunity.
“Leinster is a time of my life that I look back on very fondly and I’m very proud of my time there,” he told the42.ie. “I think learning a lot of attack stuff off Joe, learning a lot of defence stuff off Matt, a lot of cultural stuff off Chieks, it’s been good to be able to offer a couple of little insights here in Clermont. I guess that’s what experience is all about.
“It’s also a family decision because we really like the Auvergne,” he said after signing a three-year extension up to 2018. “The personal side of things is exceptional, as well as the sporting side. For me, it’s been a really positive experience and I’m really happy to continue with it.”
Yet when Azéma signed on until 2020 Gibbes felt the time, finally, had come to seek the responsibility that comes with being a head coach.
“The respect that I have for Les [Kiss], as a coach and as a person, was one of my main reasons for making this decision,” he said of the new two-year deal. “He really sold his vision of where he wants to take Ulster over the next few years.”
The massive challenge of bringing success to Belfast only comes after a even bigger task at Clermont; turning multiple semi-final and final appearances into silverware.
“Everyone wants trophies and shields but we are conscious that we have reached the playoffs and finals year in year out for the last 10 years,” said McIlroy. “That is something we are quite proud of and we can’t let the defeats wear us down. If we did they would consume us.”
Last weekend Clermont, lying second in the Top 14, lost at home to Brive. Next they travel to Grenoble before renewing acquaintances with Leinster in Lyon.
As much as Cullen’s travelling squad may be without Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, Clermont have had to put Wesley Fofana, Noa Nakaitaci and All Black Isaia Toeava on ice for the remainder of this season.
“It’ll be sad to see Jono go,” McIlroy added. “He brought a lot to Clermont with his coaching on the field but also as a person off it. He is going to a club with real ambition, he understands the provincial system in Ireland and it’s a promotion.”
One that comes at the right time.