Ulster position required no hard sell for Jono Gibbes

New Zealander’s relationship with Les Kiss made his decision an easy one

New Ulster coach Jono Gibbes. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho

New Ulster coach Jono Gibbes. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho


Jono Gibbes didn’t require massive persuasion or a hard sell to leave behind Clermont Auvergne and agree a two-year contract as head coach at Ulster, instead basing his decision on a conversation and a friendship dating back nine years.

Gibbes travelled to Ireland in 2008 recruited by Leinster as a forwards coach and during his time at the province under first, Michael Cheika, then Joe Schmidt and finally Matt O’Connor, he helped the province win three Heineken Cups before leaving to take up a position with Clermont Auvergne in 2014.

In his first season at the Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont reached the French Top 14 and Champions Cup finals.

Three summers later and Gibbes swapped the Massif Central for Belfast, as Ulster restructured their coaching set-up with the New Zealander as head coach, former Welsh international Dwayne Peel coaching the backs and Les Kiss overseeing the whole project as director of rugby.

Gibbes said: “We had a little bit of history and a relationship going back from when I was with Leinster and he [Kiss] was in the national set-up, so we would always be on pretty good terms. He’s a coach that I’ve always had a great amount of respect for and his influence on Irish rugby and the national set-up.

“I’d be an admirer of what he did there and certainly the Leinster internationals at the time, spoke very highly of his coaching style and process, so that’s kind of the history of it.

“He didn’t really sell [Ulster] we just talked about where I wanted to go, where he wanted to take Ulster and his vision and I think for me it aligned due to the timing more than a sales pitch. It sat [well] with me and my ambition involving my role and getting to learn off him and I think that’s kind of how it all happened.”

Gibbes had an insight into Ulster’s rugby culture and values from his time at Leinster, explaining that the one thing he always demanded of his forwards was to be ready to match Ulster’s physicality in the collisions.  

The New Zealander explained how he will draw down on his time as a player, working with a glut of top class international talent down through the years and operating under some brilliant coaches to foster an identity and ethos.

“The main thing is team work, trying to put together the best way of playing, so that we use everyone’s strengths collectively. That’s kind of how I was raised and coached and have been influenced in my coaching career. So that’s what we, as a coaching team is trying to do.

“There is talent in the [playing] group. There’s different experience, different backgrounds; guys with varying degrees of international experience, so there’s lots of good pieces. It’s about moulding them all together and channelling them into one direction and one force really.”

Ulster’s comprehensive victory over the Cheetahs at the Kingspan stadium was a significant improvement on pre-season results with Gibbes pointing to the “little glimmers of team work coming through.”

Gibbes was asked about coming from clubs who were consistently at the business end of tournaments during his time with Leinster and Clermont to Ulster, who haven’t won a trophy for 11 years.

He explained: “Sometimes the margins are very very fine and I think the difference between getting the final result or not getting it is small. But that is why you do not worry about where you want to end up, you just make sure each day and each week counts.

“If you stack enough good weeks you are going to have a good month, and if you stack up enough good months you are going to be there or thereabouts where you want to be.

“But that is a long way off, about nine months away, so we have had a good week one. We will make some changes for Treviso and that group which goes there they have a responsibility.”

Gibbes will make a number of changes for this week’s trip to Italy but one person who’s still a bit away from joining his new team-mates is prop Schalk van der Merwe. “He is working away and has a couple of markers that he had got to meet before he reintegrates into the rugby side of things,” the New Zealander explained.

“I think the injury is progressing well enough and he has moved into the conditioning phase of his programme and once he moves out of that he will move into the return to play phase.  [I’m] not sure when his next marker is, he certainly is enthusiastic to play.” 

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