La Rochelle meeting didn't affect Ulster's play-off preparation, insists departing Gibbes
After a bizarre end to his time in Ulster, departing head coach Jono Gibbes denied his mid-week trip to La Rochelle had any effect on the team's preparation for yesterday's key Champions Cup play-off with Ospreys.
The province beat Allen Clarke's Welsh visitors by a score of 35-17 at Kingspan Stadium to avoid a first ever season in the Challenge Cup, but the lead-up to game was centred around their now former coach.
The ex-All Black, who arrived in Belfast last summer, announced in March that he would be leaving the side to deal with a personal matter at home and taking a position with Waikato.
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However, he visited La Rochelle on Thursday, just three days before yesterday's win.
Regardless of where he will coach next season, many questioned the timing of taking a meeting with the Top 14 outfit at such a stage, but the former Leinster and Clermont man was quick to deny it had detracted from his side's preparation for such a crucial contest.
"I guess the only thing I'd say is that I don't want people to feel like the performance or the preparation was compromised," he stressed. "That's certainly not the case. I think that it was the day off for the players and, that's not wholly the reason for the trip to France on that day, but for me it was the anomaly that there were three weeks with no game before so there was a lot of detail (already) put in place.
"We had tried to really scale down having too many messages this week. Supporters, I would hate for them to think that our preparation was compromised because it certainly wasn't.
"The things that we've built over the last nine months, but also the last three weeks since Munster, came through against Ospreys. For me, I feel confident that Thursday didn't compromise that."
With any defeat sure to have focussed the gaze on him further, Gibbes was no doubt even happier than would have otherwise been the case to see his side overcome the challenge of Ospreys and secure their place in Europe's top tier next season.
Battling back from a shaky start, Ulster came out on the right side thanks to tries from Kieran Treadwell, Jacob Stockdale and a brace from Craig Gilroy.
It was the scores from the latter either side of half-time that Gibbes felt swung the pivotal game in the host's favour.
"At half-time the chat was really positive," he said. "It was reinforcing things for them and to be able to continue to do that in the next 40, the score straight after half-time just gave them a boost and gain that little bit of energy and they kicked on. It was great.
"I am absolutely delighted for the group. The line in the sand that they put there after Cardiff defeat (in March), the block of four games after that were really good and really useful assets for the team for next year to have a look at what the best parts of what Ulster are.
"That was the challenge here to put a fifth week on top and that was all heart and work rate and some repeatable habits moving forward."