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Jono Gibbes: This is why I'm leaving Ulster despite mixed emotions


On his way: Jono Gibbes is returning to New Zealand for family reasons
On his way: Jono Gibbes is returning to New Zealand for family reasons
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Departing head coach Jono Gibbes has admitted he'll leave Ulster with a sense of unfinished business after it was revealed these will be his final weeks at Kingspan Stadium.

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The second key man in the coaching set-up to leave the province since the start of 2018 after Les Kiss was axed in January, the New Zealander will return home in May to be closer to an undisclosed family situation.

It was announced on Monday morning that he will take up a coaching role with Waikato on his return home.

"It's a bit disappointing really," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "It's a mix of emotions. I think for me I know it's the right decision personally in regards to what needs my attention most in the short-term, but a little bit it feels like unfinished business.

"Certainly, it's disappointing especially after only one year. The work that's coming up is a challenge, but exciting too."

Last month the former Leinster and Clermont forwards' coach branded reports he was set to take a job with the Australian national team as "fake news", but stopped short of saying he intended to see out the remaining 18 months on his deal.

Stories he was to leave persisted but were, for whatever reason, denied by Ulster Rugby officials. As it turned out the former All Black made up his mind he had to return home following a flying visit over Christmas, a trip that with his family situation in mind had been agreed before he even took the head coach position.

"It wasn't a difficult decision really," he said. "I'd spoken to Les before coming about my situation and he was aware of that. Going back to New Zealand at Christmas time, which again I'd discussed with Les before I came, there was a reason around that and that visit confirmed or maybe re-affirmed, a few things for me around what the reality is.

"That helped clarify the priorities for me. From that point of view, that sort of stuff makes it a no-brainer. But professionally, I really enjoy who I work with, I really like going to work, and that's the mixed feeling really."

Gibbes will not be out of work long - he is already being lined up by Waikato, the provincial side he once captained - but is keen to stress that any future job is a product of his return southwards, not the other way round.

"I've a young family so being employed is a relatively high priority for me," he said. "That's only realistic. Any employment I have in New Zealand is a consequence of me moving back to New Zealand, it's important to emphasise that I'm not leaving Ulster for another job, but I do plan to be employed. I need to be employed but that will be because I'm back in New Zealand, nothing else."

Indeed, keen to discredit any whispers to the contrary, Gibbes has wholly positive things to say about his short time living in Ulster.

"Without being too cliche, the tourism board, they have that catchphrase, discover Northern Ireland and that's bang on the money.

"There's some well-kept secrets around here, some beautiful parts of the province and I was fortunate enough to get out and have a look.

"It's a rural place and for me, I'm more of rural person. That's what I've enjoyed.

"I've been made to feel really welcome, by the playing group and the public, and I've enjoyed some great times."

To say that there haven't been difficulties during the Kiwi's only season in Belfast though, would be air-brushing history.

When results haven't been average, they've been poor and there is a real danger that the side may miss out on Champions Cup qualification for a first time should they continue to struggle over the season's final five games.

Given he seemed of the character to be part of the solution rather than another part of the problem, the loss of Gibbes moving forward is a bitter pill to swallow for the dysfunctional province, but when the dust settles on this tumultuous campaign, he believes the foundations for the required rebuild will be there.

"Les and I were small cogs in that wheel and it will continue to turn for sure," he said. "I think it's not ideal to have those quick transitions but that's the nature of professional sport. If you're running a high-performance programme, or an elite business, in the evolution, timings are never seamless, there's always some frictions. It's not comfortable, but these things happen. There's a good amount of the right people involved that are really invested in making Ulster strong.

"I tried to say in my statement, there's enough of the right people and enough of the right qualities there. And certainly, from my short time here, I've seen what the group is capable of. There's definitely a difficult season performance-wise, and there have been a few factors around that.

"I got to work alongside, and see first hand, what it means to the players. It means a hell of a lot. I know that hasn't translated into consistent performance. I think for me, I can see what they're capable of.

"It's going to take a huge amount of work, a huge amount of investment but anything that's of substance, anything that endures, anything that's long-term, it costs you a lot. It does require maximum effort and that's the situation that's about to come through at Ulster."

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