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I'm leaving Ulster with many good memories, says departing Gibbes

 

By Jonathan Bradley

When departing Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes thinks back over his short stay in the northern province, the two wins that stick in his mind only serve to further highlight the importance of what will be his final game in charge this weekend.

The Kiwi is to set sail for home after Sunday's Champions Cup play-off with Ospreys in order to be closer to a family situation while also taking charge of Waikato. There are, however, reports in France that he is on the radar of La Rochelle who lost their own head coach last week.

Regardless of whether such talk manifests itself more seriously, and indeed one source already went as far as suggesting a possible meeting in the Bay of Biscay today, he believes he leaves these shores a better coach than when he arrived despite the tumultuous season.

"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 and their desire to do the role as best they can," said the man who originally came to work under Les Kiss but inherited the top job in January.

"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 something that has been a real positive experience for me.

"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.

"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.

"Probably in about six months or a year's time I will reflect even further. But there's some really good lessons."

When pressed for a few favourite on-field highlights of his time, the two that spring to mind are the snow-swept Harlequins victory and the bonus-point triumph over La Rochelle. Despite not making the quarter-finals, Ulster's better performances were largely saved for Europe this season, but that both Gibbes' choice of most memorable moments came in the Champions Cup is no coincidence either.

There is an extra level of intensity, physicality and interest that comes with Europe's top tier, with Ulster's presence in the competition having been a constant since it's inception.

The province has never played a game in the Challenge Cup but risk an entire season in the secondary competition should they lose at home for a third time this season.

While the likes of Clermont, Northampton Saints and Stade Francais have already ensured there will be some glamour in the pool stages, Ulster are out to ensure they don't join them.

And while the season will hardly be considered a success regardless of the result this weekend, there can be no denying the need to maintain their position at Europe's top table.

Not over-hyping what's at stake, Gibbes believes it's imperative the side employ the same attitude evidenced in a run that has seen them go undefeated in their last four games to breathe life into Champions Cup hopes.

"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, whether we end up playing Champions Cup or 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 four games. For me, yes, there is a positive consequence for winning this game and being in Europe is great, but what I'd like is for this group to go out showing how hard they are prepared to work for each other.

"(I'd like to see) a lot of effort, a lot of attitude and a lot pride in who they represent and for them to give a really good last impression to hand over to next year's squad.

"For me that would be pretty satisfying."

The first time this fixture has been a requirement, thanks to the scheduling of other leagues and European competitions, it has been almost a full three weeks since Ulster last took to the field in their draw with Munster at the end of April.

With those not touring with Ireland in Australia this summer having been 80 minutes from their summer break for so long, Gibbes admits it has taken a change in the routine to keep his squad ticking over.

"It was challenging, absolutely," he said. "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.

"It's 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.

"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. But yeah, it has been a bit of a challenge."

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