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"I'm not sure it was about selling it': Why Jono Gibbes left the French champions for Ulster

Jono Gibbes is ready to mould Ulster into a force to be reckoned with.

Gibbes:
Gibbes: "Don't worry about where you want to end up; just make sure each day and each week counts."
Image: Darren Kidd/INPHO

IT’S TESTAMENT TO how good you are at your job when one of your players praises you effusively.

Enter Jono Gibbes.

“Immediately when we came in we realised how good a coach he is,” was Rob Herring’s simple summation of the Kiwi, who has taken over as head coach at the Kingspan Stadium.

Glowing praise indeed for a man whose glittering rugby CV has worked its way to the glamorous shores of Belfast, where he hopes to do a similar job to the one he did last time he was on the island.

The former All Black joins a new-look Ulster coaching staff in Belfast – alongside Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon, presided over by Director of Rugby Les Kiss – as the province aim to turn around their fortunes.

In that regard, it’s crucial for Ulster that, where the affable 40-year old goes, success seems to follow. Six trophies while at Leinster, followed by last season’s Top14 triumph with Clermont – his track record speaks for itself.

He’s presided over sides that dominate their opposition physically, again, something that Ulster have lacked over the last several years. They need a hardened edge that Gibbes can offer.

At the time it was a confusing move, leaving the money-laden big-hitting defending French champions for a top-half Guinness Pro14 team who are frequent underachievers.

But on paper it’s a match made in heaven, and in his first appearance in front of the media, Gibbes says he didn’t need much convincing to make the switch to Ulster.

“I’m not sure it was about selling it as such,” he begins when asked how Ulster’s Director of Rugby Les Kiss attracted him to Northern Ireland.

“It was probably just because we had a little bit of history and relationship going back from when I was with Leinster and he 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 that he has had on Irish rugby and the national set-up.

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 really due to the timing more than a sales pitch.

“It sat 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.”

His first task is to turn around a squad that last season fell short on every aspect – fifth in the Pro12 (as it was then) and bottom of their European pool was an ugly end to an ugly campaign.

The pressure is now on – Kiss is in his third year as Director of Rugby and there is mounting pressure from a disgruntled fanbase. You sense a good season is vital.

But the initial signs are good, a 42-19 win over tournament debutants the Cheetahs a promising start, but Gibbes admits that the coaching staff are focusing on one game at a time and letting the momentum build first.

“I think sometimes the margins are very very fine and I think the difference between sometimes getting the final result or not getting it is small,” the head coach admits.

But that’s why you don’t worry about where you want to end up, you just make sure each day and each week counts and 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’s a long way off, about nine months away. We’ve only had week one.”

As he speaks, there’s one thing that jumps out from what he’s saying – that creating a team from individuals is going to be key this season.

“I think certainly there is talent in the group,” Gibbes says. “There’s different experience, different backgrounds. There’s 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.

“The main thing (I want to bring) is really 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, are trying to do as well. There’s really good alignment as all of the coaching team see the same vision on how we can get the most out of 15 Ulstermen at one time and create something that has really strong values of teamwork.”

Good alignment both on and off the field suggests things may be turning the right way for Ulster. They have the coaching staff Kiss has wanted since he joined the province, so there are no more excuses.

Gibbes, as part of that, has the track record. Now all that remains to be seen is if it continues.

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