RUGBY: I have learned from my time at Ulster says Jono Gibbes

Head Coach Jono Gibbes. �INPHO/Declan Roughan
Head Coach Jono Gibbes. �INPHO/Declan Roughan

Jono Gibbes believes he will leave Ulster a better coach after his shorter than anticipated stint with the Irish Province.

The current head coach will send his players out for one final time on Sunday afternoon when they face Ospreys in a winner takes all European Champions Cup play-off game at Kingspan Stadium.

The perfect send off for him would be to see the side go five straight games unbeaten and secure the seventh and final Guinness PRO14 European Champions Cup place.

The clash is as big as a cup final with the prize on offer, getting to dine once again with the best 20 clubs in the Northern Hemisphere - and Gibbes would like to sign off his tenure on a positive note.

The spotlight did turn on him again on Wednesday night when French newspapers were linking him to the vacant coaching role at La Rochelle.

That came after Gibbes had stunned Ulster fans by announcing his departure a year early to return home to New Zealand for family reasons - although he had also secured a coaching position with Waikato in his native homeland.

A move to France at this late stage would not be massively surprising, Gibbes after all was part of a successful Clermont outfit in the Top 14.

His experience there and previously with Leinster saw him as the perfect fit to the Ulster backroom staff last summer when he, Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon became the new team alongside director of rugby Les Kiss.

What happened next could never have been seen in a crystal ball.

Off the field players were facing a court trial in relation to sexual charges - all of whom were eventually acquitted unanimously be a jury.

A run of poor results which saw Ulster exit Europe at the pool stages and leave them struggling in the Guinness PRO14 eventually led to Kiss leaving by mutual consent - and Gibbes found himself at the helm.

The end of the court trial saw Ulster’s form on the pitch also change, Gibbes seeing his side win three games in a row to reignite their play-off final series hopes on the domestic front.

But a draw in Munster on the final day of the regular league campaign saw Ulster come up one place short of automatic European Champions Cup qualification and for the second successive season not involved in the PRO14 play-offs.

Finishing fourth in Conference B did secure Ulster one last chance to secure top tier European Cup rugby, hence the play-off against Ospreys.

Gibbes may have said he is not fussed about finishing with a win for himself personally, but he would like to see an Ulster side continue to produce the form they have recently and get the result.

“I think Rory Best, you know, he sort of grabbed the group after the Cardiff game and just said ‘look no matter what happens however the results go wether we end up playing Champions Cup or not it’s not the most important thing for us is how we go out and play for each other and what we stand for out on the field’.

“I think we have achieved that in those for games. For me yes there is a positive consequence for winning this game and being in Europe it’s great, but just for me, what I’d like as for this group to go out showing how hard they are prepared to work for each other.

“A lot of effort, a lot of attitude and a lot pride in who they represent and give a really good last impression to hand over to next year squad.

“For me that would be pretty satisfying,” he confirmed.

It will be three weeks since Ulster played that last game in Limerick - a 24-all draw with Munster - and Gibbes admits it has been a challenge keeping the focus ahead of Sunday’s showdown.

“Yeah it was challenging absolutely. If we had played this game seven days after Munster not a problem. You just move on to the next game. But certainly three weeks between games poses a bit of a challenge. There’s a few things to overcome there and trying to keep as much of an edge as possible mentally, and be as contact ready as you can.

“And just managing the enthusiasm and energy of the squad is different because you have got two weeks where there is no game at the end of the weekend for them to get into.

“Yeah it has been a bit of a challenge but I think they have responded well. We shortened up the days as best we could and I think they have come in and worked hard.

“We’ll see Sunday how well we’ve actually managed it,” he smiled.

But Gibbes can see that the players are ready - even if there are injury concerns around the backrow department and the fact captain Rory Best is now a doubt with a hamstring injury.

“Training has been good in the past couple of days,” he acknowledged. Certainly it has gone up a shift in these two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) this week.

“We did situational stuff and conditioning things, things that will help a game but not under a lot of intensity.

“That’s what we achieved in the last two weeks. But certainly game week the first two sessions have been a good lift.”

Ospreys were in Belfast a month ago when Ulster prevailed 8-0 after what was a thrilling contest, dominated by the Irish Province.

“I’m not sure if we’re going to get that again. I think they (Ospreys) have built and had seven wins in their last 10 games so there is a lot of quality there similar to us.

“They have good internationals there and they’ll try and bring their match intensity and hold on to that because they have got international commitments around the corner as well.

“We’re expecting a torrid match for our guys,” he admitted.

Whatever the outcome on Sunday at around 4.30pm, Gibbes believes his time at Ulster has improved him as a coach.

“Probably in about six months or a year’s time I will reflect even further.

“But some really good lessons I have learnt from this experience, the day-to-day and then you just move onto the next job. But some things for me, I like who I work with, I like the staff, that has been a really massive positive thing for us.

“There’s been a lot of challenges off the field, there’s been a lot of challenges on the field but walking into the office each day the people who I work with I’ve enjoyed their conviction, their desire to do the role as best they can.

“It might seem hard to believe but we had a good time doing what we have done this year, we have backed each other up off the field so that was so that has been a real positive experience for me.

“Also, learning from the players, learning off the coaches, creating new bits of knowledge and experience has been really good.

“I think myself and my family have had a really good experience in Ulster, off the field and integration into the community has been real positive things, really positive things that I know straight away.

“In about 12 months, even when you move on to something else and you have time to reflect on all those lessons, there have been some difficult challenges and things as a coach.

“Some of them haven’t been particularly enjoyable but it’s how you cope under a bit of stress and under pressure, some real curve balls, that makes you better for sure.

“But I think the thing for me is that I haven’t had to do it by myself. The people I work with have been great, really I think there is a real strength in the place and it is something they can use to move forward with,” he added.

Among the highlights of his time, it was two European Cup games which Gibbes pointed to.

“I think Harlequins away, not from the rugby as there was some pretty ugly and the snow and that, but that seven minutes or 10 minutes the team gets by itself after that game all alone, the satisfaction for the result was great.

“I think La Rochelle at home, standing there on the sidelines and seeing how the public in the province what they think about those players who are leaving and the signing off that they give them, that was a real privilege to be part of it,” he said.