Daryl Gibson interview: In-depth on tough times, a bright future, the Izzy saga and why he walked

To get a sense of how far Daryl Gibson travelled from the All Black who once tried to bury Australian hope as deep below Eden Park as possible, you only have to look in his garage.

In recent years at the Gibson family home in eastern Sydney, out had gone the family car into the elements and in its place were a couple of single beds.

As big as Ikea make them, the beds were occupied by a steady progression of often-oversized Waratahs recruits, who needed a place to stay and a domestic foothold in a big city.

Gibson was the NSW coach but he – and his wife Liana and four kids – were a de-facto family as well, if required. Some stayed a little and others a while. Family dinners had extra settings, and scale.

And in a mark of the man, attempts to tell the story of ‘Gibbo’s Garage’ were politely skipped around. 

“I came here to serve rugby in this country. When you look at Australia-New Zealand rivalry, New Zealand needs Australia,” Gibson explains of his trans-Tasman allegiances.

“They need Australia to be strong and competitive, and yes, we have gone through a period of New Zealand dominance at Super and international level. While we are still developing those things, but the cycle is on the right path. I absolutely believe that.”

Having arrived in Sydney in 2012 as an assistant coach to Michael Cheika, Gibson went on to succeed Cheika as Waratahs head coach in 2016.

Such has been the turbulence of his four seasons in charge of Australia’s biggest rugby franchise, it is a career decision he now simultaneously questions, and is very grateful he made.

But with a year left on his contract, Gibson this week announced he would not see out a fifth season and stepped down. 

With a string of senior players leaving, and a promising line of emerging NSW talent pushing through, Gibson believes a new cycle is starting and he’d be ‘stealing’ a year of it from another coach.

“It was a difficult decision for me because I am incredibly invested in NSW rugby after the last seven years,” he said.

“But I knew it was time. It’s time for a new voice here.”

Gibson sat down with RUGBY.com.au to talk through his decision, the highs and lows of his time with the Waratahs, the Israel Folau saga, the connection issues in NSW Rugby and his confidence that Australian rugby – that entity he once cared little for – is now returning to strength.

THE BEGINNING 

Gibson played 19 Tests for the All Blacks and 77 games for the Crusaders in the early days of their dominant Super Rugby empire between 1996 and 2002. 

After playing overseas, he moved into coaching at the Crusaders and in 2012 accepted a gig working under Cheika at the Waratahs, who were undergoing a re-build. The early years remain some of Gibson’s best memories.

“Definitely the build-up and change that occurred in 2013 and then the realisation of that work in 2014,” Gibson said.

“It’s often overlooked in 2014 that the team was sitting in a really precarious moment during that year and then went on an incredible run.

“There was a moment there against the Hurricanes, I think we were down 20 points. And the team stormed back and won the game. That was a real momentum shift and then winning the final in such dramatic circumstances, that will be a lasting memory.”

Cheika often says the 2015 Waratahs were actually a better team and a golden opportunity was lost to go back-to-back when they went down a player in the semi-final, and lost to the eventual champions the Highlanders.

With Cheika having moved permanently to the Wallabies gig, Gibson was appointed as the new Waratahs’ head coach. It made perfect sense. At the time, at least.

“If I reflect on my time now and now that I know what I know, I would have probably walked out the door as well,” Gibson says.

THE REAL BEGINNING

It’s a dramatic statement from Gibson, and one he quickly clarifies.

He doesn’t regret his four years as head coach of the Waratahs.

It’s more along the lines of if he was advising a young, first-time head coach and saw a club looking like the Waratahs when he took control in 2015, Gibson would counsel deep thought.

Not only were they entering a re-build phase, the Waratahs had lost half their staff and chief executive Greg Harris was also exiting. It was less than stable footing.

“What I have learned about successful teams is that stability aspect,” Gibson says. 

“You need stability in your roster, you need stability in administration. There are so many factors that go into that.

“When those positions aren’t filled or filled with experience, it can make it really difficult and when I look at that, having six staff move with Cheik to the Wallabies, to not have a CEO in that period, to not have a list manager, and being a first-year head coach in my first gig, I look back and go: ‘well, that was an interesting decision’.”

The Waratahs eventually found a new CEO in Andrew Hore in March 2016, coaching and support staff were recruited and Tim Rapp was made general manager.

It was only the start of the head coach journey for Gibson, though. As Australian rugby experienced a sharp cyclical downturn and the Kiwis went sharply upwards, the Gibson-led Waratahs and their fans battled through some tough seasons.

In 2016, NSW came tenth and in 2017, a lowly 16th. 

In 2018, the tide finally turned and Gibson’s side won the Australian conference and made the semi-finals. The 2019 season was to be the season where the Waratahs went one better, and replicated their deeds of five years earlier. 

It wasn’t to be, with an Israel Folau-shaped bomb was dropped in the middle of a season that was already trending towards hot-and-cold.

They finished 12th with six wins – two short of a playoffs spot.

“I am really pleased to have had that experience,” Gibson said. 

“I have learned a great deal about myself during that process. Would I trade that now? No, absolutely not. It has been an incredibly valuable period, I have worked with great people and I am really pleased to be able to pass on what we have built.”

2019 AND THE ISRAEL THING

The Waratahs were 4-4 on April 10 – the same record in which the 2014 Tahs launched a title run. And having beaten the Crusaders in round six, confidence was still very much bubbling at Daceyville.

But when Israel Folau posted his now-infamous homophobic instagram message, the season changed for everyone.

Given he’d done the same thing a year earlier and ignored warnings, Folau would go on to be suspended, and then sacked by NSW Rugby and Rugby Australia seven weeks later.

The publicity storm swallowed up the Waratahs.

“I was very strong on that we were not going to be victims in something we didn’t create,” Gibson said.

“The correct response was to take ownership and responsibility for the things we can control.

“In terms of managing people through that period, I think we were no different to everyday society. We are a collection of people that share their own beliefs and come from their own experiences. Everyone had an opinion and everyone had a feeling about it.

“I felt as an organisation and as a team, we handled that really maturely. In terms of making sure we talked about it openly and honestly, and understanding how people were feeling. 

“Of course that takes a lot of time and probably when I reflect on that, it was challenging managing people because of the time that it took to do that.

“It was difficult to escape that and have normal rugby conversations with the media and so forth, because the story was about the Israel thing.”

Time is a coach’s most valuable currency. Modern coaches have their diaries broken down into 15 minute blocks and every day of the week ahead of a game is chock-a-block full, for an entire season.

Suddenly, Gibson had to re-prioritise most days; talking to players, the head office and taking on a bigger share of media duties where Folau questions were the only thing coming in each day. For weeks, and months.

Ironically, Gibson’s step-down announcement on Friday was again overshadowed by the latest breaking Folau news.

“The time taken up with that is time taken away from the rugby side of our team. However, I am really pleased with how the team responded. At no time were we splintered. It galvanised us and we tried to mitigate that loss happening around us,” Gibson said.

Gibson was the man tasked with making Folau into a rugby player in 2013 when they both first arrived at the Tahs. They know each other well.

So does he harbour resentment or ill-will towards Folau for knowingly dropping a bomb in the middle of the Waratahs season?

“No, I don’t,” Gibson answers.

“He made a choice and there are consequences for those choices.

“And it did create that (bomb) for us and we tried to manage and respond the best we could, given the circumstances. 

“When you know Israel as well as what the team does, you understand it comes from a place of genuine love and care.

“What he is suggesting is his perspective, and we understood that. As difficult as it was for a lot of other people in society to understand that, as a team we understood where it was coming from.”

Gibson knew how to deal with the media storm, and keep his team together. 

But in 2018 Folau came back to the field. In 2019, he did not.

“The way I look at it we were two wins away from being in the playoffs and we look at those performances on the field, they were really, really small margins,” he said.

“And when I look at it, probably the impact of Israel leaving the team has probably been on the field. We lost a try a game, essentially. And our try averages this year are down, and that impacted our year. It was telling.

“We scored three a game and you need four a game to be really competitive.”

Losing Folau also sent the Waratahs’ gameplan into a dangerous tail spin. What was a rock-solid and proven plan was now out the window.

“That’s probably one aspect that changed the most throughout the season – how we changed ourselves through the season,”  Gibson said.

“And really had to step back and say “the way we’re playing, given what we have experienced in losing Israel” meant that we tried to change how to play. We became a real high kicking team as we searched to find ways to win.”

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RESTING BUNGLE

Though he says it played no part in his final decision to move on, Gibson takes responsibility for the failed gamble on resting Wallabies players that led to the Tahs – minus five Wallabies – getting pumped by the Highlanders 49-12 in the last round.

“We had12-14 PONI (players of national interest) players, and it’s like anything, you start out the year with a really lovely plan on how you are going to do that throughout the season and even within the first week of that plan being rolled out it had to change because we had injuries,” Gibson explains.

“From that point it got to a point where we needed to win games, and then we felt the direction and strategy was we needed to play our best team to keep in touch and give ourselves an opportunity to be in the playoffs.

“So we took some calculated risks during the year and again, fell short. And it led to what we saw in the final round, and I take full responsibility. That was my doing, in my strategy playing out.”

MOVING ON

Gibson signed a one-and-one deal in 2018 with NSW Rugby that enabled him to do one more year, or if he chose, to take on a second year as well in 2020.

In early 2019 he informed Hore he’d take up the second but in the the back half of the season, Gibson began to think it wasn’t the right decision.

Finals campaign or otherwise, Gibson was surveying what the future of the Waratahs would look like with an outgoing of senior names, and an influx of new ones, and reckoned he was not the right guy to be at the helm for 2020.

“There wasn’t one exact moment,” Gibson says.

“Like a lot of things in life, how you were feeling a year before that point had changed.

“Every team is always in transition but this year the transition of players and the ushering in of what will be a younger team, it requires a coach to really nurture those young men and go on the journey with them.

“To go through the growing pains and the scars they’re going to get through that (2020) season and then come out the other side and really benefit that.

“I would be starting a cycle that wasn’t mine. I am really comfortable with the decision and think it is one that is really going to benefit the team.

“I just knew that I had done my time. I have been here for seven years and it’s a really excellent stint for any coach at a club. I feel like I have served the team well and served NSW Rugby and it’s time for a new voice.”

The fact his aspirational assistant Simon Cron took a job in Japan just seven weeks before his decision is something Gibson says is unfortunate timing.

“I guess we all own our own decisions and so forth,” he said.

“The club will really look at what the opportunity is and what style of coach the team needs now. Someone with an excellent track record of bringing through young players is really important. But then obviously someone who also wants to really get stuck in and take this team forward, both on the field and inside NSW Rugby.”

THE FUTURE

Apart from a holiday, Gibson is unsure what the future holds for him.

But he is more certain – and unashamedly optimistic – about the future for NSW Rugby, and Australian rugby, being bright.

Hore pointed on Friday to the unseen work of Gibson in helping to re-structure the scattered development pathways in NSW Rugby, and a concerted effort to forge a Waratahs program based on “growing your own” talent from within the state.

With 12 of the current Junior Wallabies hailing from NSW, a majority of the Australian Schools and Under 18s last year and strong under 16s talent too, Gibson is excited about the new wave that has also hastened his departure.

“We know we have this wave of young men coming through now, and we know there is another wave coming through potentially in two years with the 16s and 18s pathway really clear. We have a clear link to those young men at 16 and know they’re coming,” Gibson said.

“I genuinely believe there are six of our young men in that 20s team who will be the names of the game for the next ten years. That’s the really exciting part. As hard as it has been going through this cycle, I have been saying it for years: things move in cycles.”

It’s slow-bearing fruit but Gibson believes the work done to bring the professional, club and and community games back together in NSW in the past five years is already healing a too-often fractured sport.

“From a pathways perspective one thing I am very proud of is that we have regained that link and also coming back together as Waratahs and NSW Rugby, which was 100 per cent the right decision, and I feel now that the team and NSW Rugby are one, and that alignment is much, much better,” Gibson said.

“That disconnect was a symptom of us moving away from each other. The professional game was isolated from NSW Rugby when really they are the same and need to be the same.

“Because uniquely in our state – and there aren’t many places in the world that can say this – our boys in good number come through the systems in good number, and hail from NSW Rugby. Over 80 per cent.

“Often it’s easy for this to be not acknowledged but the people of NSW should be really proud of the men that are produced in this team, and also the care that they have for rugby in NSW. They really play for the volunteers that really power the game here in NSW and in Australia. They’re all very proud of their clubs and their schools, and they all far exceed the community hours and engagement work asked of them.”

Gibson adds, however, the Super Rugby competition itself must continue to be assessed by Rugby Australia. 

“It is important for the administrators to get the competition right to suit the Australian context. That’s a challenge going forward and we have to get that right,” he said.

GARAGE SPACE

With his decision still new, Gibson has no clue about where the future will take him as far as coaching goes.

“It’s a step into the unknown,” he said.

“I don’t have anything hooked up or anything to go to.  I will take a good holiday and then I am available to industry, and we’ll see where that takes me – or not.”

The Gibson family car may even get to go back in the garage.

“We have had a great time as a family here in NSW, we have made great memories and brilliant new friends and my children have grown up in Australia,” Gibson said. 

“They’ve got through primary school, and as a coach to have that time in one place and have that stability, so I am very grateful.

“I am pleased to say now the team is a really excellent place in terms of a chairman who is incredibly supportive, our CEO, our captain, all that’s in place. 

“Our systems are up and running and it’s really ready for another coach to take the team on another journey and build stage two.”

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