MICHAEL CHIEKA, JOE Schmidt and Matt O’Connor oversaw Leinster’s three Heineken Cup wins, two Pro12 titles and one Challenge Cup triumph between 2009 and 2014, but behind the three head coaches was a crucial linking confidant.
Leinster rugby owes a lot to the gritty work of former forwards coach Jono Gibbes.
The New Zealander moved away from the province last summer after six supremely successful seasons to join Top 14 giants Clermont. Last weekend, the 37-year-old returned to Ireland in typical fashion, his cleverly-prepared ASM side deservedly winning in Munster’s Thomond Park.
Six months on from moving to France, Gibbes reflects on his life chapter in Ireland with some pleasure, both on a personal level and in terms of his career.
“In six years at Leinster, you build up good relationships with people. I talk to a few of them still. Obviously Joe is pretty busy nowadays, but when we get the chance to catch up it’s always good.
“It’s a time of my life that I look back on very fondly and I’m very proud of my time there.
“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.”
Indeed, it’s quite the cast to have picked up valuable rugby knowledge from, but Gibbes has earned an impressive reputation in the coaching world on his own account.
Gibbes [left] enjoying good times with Joe Schmidt and Greg Feek. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
The former All Blacks back row was a major loss to the Leinster set-up when he decided to take up the forwards coach post alongside Franck Azéma at Clermont following Vern Cotter’s departure for Scotland.
Gibbes’ thirst for a new experience, his desire to continue learning, lured him to the centre of France and the growing city of Clermont-Ferrand. He’s getting exactly what he bargained for in changed surroundings, particularly with the challenge of working with a new language.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for me coaching, to go into a different culture, to go into a different language.
“I think that focus on what it is that’s important for me to get across has really helped me with my coaching. It certainly is still a challenge each day to understand them, their approaches.”
Gibbes outlines that he swiftly grasped several core French phrases within his coaching, and builds around those pillars in order to deliver the important messages around the line-out, scrum and breakdown.
Not that he stumbled straight into delivering speeches in French days after arriving from Ireland.
“I got some good advice coming over here from a lady I met through my daughter’s crèche. She said, ‘You’ll being judged on what you can bring to a new environment, so I wouldn’t attempt to talk French straight away, especially with the need to be clear.’
The Clermont forwards coach is enjoying living in new surroundings. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“Bernard Jackman said the same thing – use English to get your key points across and establish the things you’re going to coach, make sure that they’re strong enough and you’re being understood.”
Confidence in his level of French has steadily developed, even if the former Chiefs back row jokes that his three-year-old daughter already has a better grasp of le français.
Family life in Clermont-Ferrand, with its population of just over 140,00, has been enjoyable for Gibbes, who particularly relishes discovering the vast green spaces of the surrounding Auvergne region.
“It’s unbelievable countryside,” says the ex-Waikato captain. “It’s just so picturesque, and the access to that sort of stuff is one of the really strong features. We’ve enjoyed exploring quite a bit of that stuff.”
His working life is ticking along to satisfaction too, with Clermont currently a single point behind Top 14 leaders Toulon. Top of Pool 1 coming into Sunday’s return leg with Munster in the Champions Cup, ASM are favorites to advance into the quarter-finals.
Still, Gibbes insists he has much to learn about how Clermont function, and how he can have a more telling impact on the group.
“There are things that I still haven’t fully nailed by any means. Six years with Leinster, you appreciate what makes them tick with where they’re at, how the whole environment works, who are the key drivers.
“If you want to get a message through to the whole group, you know who you’re going to tell; those little things. I guess that’s the stage you’re still working out here, how it all works in the changing shed.
Gibbes’ fingerprints were all over Clermont’s win in Limerick. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO
“It’s in the changing shed where the players change each day, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in there. Your access into that is only through some of the players. You’re still learning different relationships and things like that. There’s a lot off the field for me to still learn.”
Remarkably for a club with a budget of close to €29million, Clermont’s coaching team consists of head coach Azéma, forwards specialist Gibbes and skills/kicking mentor Xavier Sadourny, who also works closely with the club’s formation [academy].
It means Gibbes is much more than a straight-forward set-piece coach, instead being integrally involved in all aspects of the game. That much was apparent in the Kiwi’s fingerprints being all over last weekend’s win in Munster.
“There’s three of us, or two-and-a-half of us, so there’s a lot that has to be done,” says Gibbes. “A forwards coach can’t just be a scrum and line-out person.
Azéma, who helped Perpignan to a Top 14 title in 2009, joined ASM in 2010 to replace Schmidt as backs coach under Cotter. Having driven much of the club’s attacking play in the proceeding years, Azéma was the ideal candidate to succeed Cotter at the start of this season.
For Gibbes, he is also proving to be a perfect head coach. The duo’s philosophies on the game overlap in many areas, while Gibbes enjoys Azéma’s constant habit of studying other clubs and organisations for different ways of operating.
Most importantly for Gibbes, Azéma’s mindset has been reassuring.
“My first impression was that he had a good calmness about him,” explains Gibbes. “He’s actually from Perpignan, he’s a Catalan, so he wouldn’t necessarily have that. But he certainly has got a calm demeanour and I like that.
Gibbes left an impressive legacy at Leinster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
“My natural apprehension of going to France was that things get a bit emotional and volatile quickly, and some of the refereeing is not as good as it should be. So, I wanted to work with someone that I knew would be able to calmly work through stressful stuff.”
So far, so good for Clermont and their new coaching axis of Azéma and Gibbes, but rarely have the Auvergne-based outfit had problems at this stage of the season. They are almost always alive come knock-out time, both in Europe and domestically.
It is hoped that the change of coaching staff can help Clermont take the final steps they have failed to traverse ever since their 2010 Top 14 title. Doubts over their mental strength might remain, but adding a winner like Gibbes to the mix is likely to have some remedying effect.
“There’s definitely been some hiccups, it’s not all smooth sailing. We got 51 points put on us in Bordeaux [UBB beat them 51-21 in October]. For me, that’s still my reference point. I think about that week, what was the story with our preparation, how did we get to that outcome?
“Sometimes it’s positive, like the scalp that we took against Munster. That was a positive, but nothing is guaranteed.
“I think that tag of not winning things… look, you’ve got to be in the final. There’s only two teams that can win it and they’re in the final. Obviously, Clermont have been to a few finals and not got it done, but the bulk of the work is there and the bulk of the building bricks are in place.
“We’ve got to just find that extra little bit. That’s the challenge, to try and add a little bit more to that.”
Originally published at 06.30, 12 December
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