Jono Gibbes will have a full ‘in-tray’ when he succeeds Franck Azema as head coach of ASM Clermont Auvergne, the great underachievers of Top 14 and European rugby.
The former New Zealand international has built up a strong reputation as a coach over the last 10 years and he is looking forward to leading current charges La Rochelle into their first European Champions Cup semifinal this weekend, before making the switch in clubs over the summer break.
Jono Gibbes, 44, spent four seasons with Clermont as Azema’s assistant. He left in 2017 after the team had won their second French Top 14 title, first to Ulster, and then back home with Waikato before La Rochelle came calling.
Azema will take over as head coach of Montpellier at the season’s end, and his departure comes with the club, founded by the Michelin tyre company for the benefit of its workers, in a rut. Their challenge in Europe is over, and the one in the Top 14 is losing momentum.
As such, Gibbes is sure to be a busy man when he starts work at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
Here, Last Word on Rugby looks at what Gibbes needs to do to turn them back into challengers in France and Europe.
Jono Gibbes task list: Find Clermont ‘focus’
Clermont are fourth in the Top 14 table which will earn them a home match in the les barrages, the first round of play-off matches that pitches third against sixth, and fourth against fifth, with a semifinal against one of the top two at a neutral venue the victor’s reward.
However, their form has swung wildly from amazing to awful this season, with their most recent match, a 41-30 defeat to Lyon on Saturday, encapsulating their season to a tee.
After trailing 20-10 at one point early in the second half, and with Judicael Cancoriet sent off, they roused themselves with tries from George Moala, and Cheikh Tiberghien, plus two Morgan Parra conversions to go 30-27 ahead, with seven minutes remaining.
An offence from the restart gave Lyon the chance to hit back, and they did so immediately with a try to retake the lead. Then with the final play, as Clermont chased a late winner, the ball ran loose, and Fijian winger Josua Tuisova finished off a swift counter-attack to deny the visitors even a losing bonus point.
French rugby teams are notorious for not worrying too much about winning on the road, but Gibbes will need to drill home the fact that failing to see the wider picture and maintaining their concentration will have ramifications in close matches. Sometimes pragmatism isn’t a bad approach in the long run.
#OFFICIEL ⚠️Jono Gibbes jusqu’en juin 2024 ⚠️
Dès le mois de juillet, Jono Gibbes, champion de France avec l’ASM Clermont Auvergne en 2017, fera son retour au club en tant qu’entraîneur principal #YellowArmy
— ASM Rugby (@ASMOfficiel) April 22, 2021
Fitness first the philosophy of Jono Gibbes
Kiwi coaches are well-regarded in the Massif Central, the wide expanse of central France that the city of Clermont-Ferrand calls home. Gibbes and Azema succeeded Vern Cotter, who was assisted by another Kiwi, Joe Schmidt when the club ended their wait for a first Top 14 title with victory over Perpignan in 2010. Cotter also took Les Jaunards to their first European Cup final.
Under Cotter and Schmidt, Clermont developed a reputation for ensuring that their players maintained Kiwi-like levels of fitness at a time when most French teams didn’t appear to worry too much about their conditioning.
Sean Edwards, then Wales defence coach, often cited Clermont for the way they kept Welsh fullback Leigh Byrne in shape. Contrasting it to the way those Wales internationals with other French clubs, had to undergo extra sessions to bring their conditioning up to the level expected of members of the Welsh squad.
— Mike Pearce Rugby (@MPsportsdragon) June 13, 2019
Clermont like to play a fast, open style, and to do so they have to be in tip-top condition. Gibbes’ background and reputation should ensure he has no problems imposing high fitness standards. It is the very least he should expect of his squad.
Succession planning already in place at ASM Clermont Auvergne
Azema oversaw Clermont’s most successful few years from 2015 to 2019 when the team won a Top 14 championship and the European Challenge Cup and reached two other Top 14 finals and European Champions Cup finals in 2015 and 2017.
Many of the stars from those triumphs have gone or are heading towards retirement. Hooker Benjamin Kayser retired after the Challenge Cup victory and has not been properly replaced. Centre Wesley Fofana is 33, half-backs Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra, flanker Alexandre Lapandry, and number eight Fritz Lee are 32, and prop Rabah Slimani is 31.
The players that were tagged to take on their mantle have enjoyed mixed success. Flanker or second-row Arthur Iturria, and centre or wing Damian Penaud have been unquestionable successes, but the likes of flankers Cancoriet and Alexandre Fischer, hooker Yohan Beheregar, and prop Etienne Falgoux have yet to truly make their mark on the team.
Sebastien Bezy has been brought in as back-up Parra at scrum-half, while signing France 7s Jean-Pascal Barraque was a smart piece of business with five tries in 14 appearances this season. However, Gibbes will need to make some calls to help fill the gaps that are beginning to open, as a fine group of players begin to wind down their careers.
Defensive deficiencies another area to focus on after Club switch
French teams have never really shown the greatest enthusiasm for defensive training, though Sean Edwards’ success with the national team is beginning to trickle down to the Top 14 clubs.
Clermont has always taken pride in their ability to break down even the tightest of defences, and the way they fought back to haul in Wasps in their European Champions Cup round of 16 match showed what they can do when they are in form.
A week later against Toulouse in the quarterfinals though, their defensive deficiencies came back to haunt them. Their inability to hold a tight line meant that whenever Toulouse broke through they panicked and gave away penalties that Romain Ntamack was happy to slot.
Having a natural full-back would also help in the team’s defensive organisation. For the last 10 years, Clermont has had a first-class fullback. First, there was France international Anthony Floch. Then Wales’ Byrne, who was followed by England test cap Nick Abendanon. That was followed by South Africa-born French International player Scott Spedding as the last line of defence. For Gibbes, his switch of clubs will bring a checklist and, fullback is sure to be on the ‘shopping list’.
Note: this season Japanese winger Kotaro Matsushima has worn the number 15 shirt, and while he has been devastating in attack, in defence he has often been missing.
Gibbes is highly unlikely to change the nature of the team but, he is likely to see the sense in ensuring his side know what to do when the tide of a match starts to turn against them. And a strong defence is called for.
It may involve him opening his contacts to bring in a snarling, Kiwi attack dog to whip the defence into shape. After all, keeping a tighter defence will make life easier for Clermont when they eventually go on the attack, and who knows maybe it would help the team get over the line the next time they play in a final.
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