Jack Gibson: 'Greatest ever' rugby league coach
Monday 12 May 2008
Jack Gibson was arguably the greatest rugby league coach in the history of the game. The innovations he brought to the code during his long career with various Australian clubs made him indisputably the most influential mentor of his generation.
Although he is most often associated with Parramatta's hat-trick of Australian titles – the Winfield Cup (as it was then) from 1981 to 1983 – he had begun to demonstrate his ability to transform teams and individuals long before that.
A rugged front-rower with Eastern Suburbs, Western Suburbs and Newtown, Gibson played once for New South Wales and was considered unlucky not to have been selected by Australia. It was when his playing career ended, however, that he became a pivotal figure in the development of the game.
His first coaching appointment was at Easts in 1967 and his first season there marked him out as something special. The previous season, the Roosters had set an unwanted record by failing to win a single match; in their first year under Gibson, the same group of players reached the play-offs. They did the same the following year, as did St George, two years running, when he took the reins there. Even humble Newtown, a club long past its peak, became contenders under his tutelage and reached the semi-finals at the end of his season in charge.
The legend of Jack Gibson, the master coach who could coax hitherto unseen qualities out of players, was taking shape, but it took a return to Eastern Suburbs, the club he always regarded as home, to add substance to the myth.
In 1974 and again in 1975, the Roosters won back-to-back Premierships, the first time they had achieved that in 40 years. By this time, the extra elements that made Gibson uniquely successful were firmly in place. He was the first to look outside the game and outside the rugby league-playing nations for new ideas on how it should be approached.
From the late Sixties onwards, he was making trips to the United States to study training techniques in American football. It was in the States that he found out the advantages that could be gained from video analysis and the intensive use of match statistics. Wayne Bennett, his only rival for the title of the master coach in the code, put it like this when he heard of Gibson's death: "He changed the face of our game. That's his greatest legacy – he brought it out of the Dark Ages."
Gibson put a new emphasis on the importance of meticulous preparation, of identifying mistakes and working to eliminate them; the antithesis of the old school approach, under which the coach saw his main function as ranting and raving on match-day. His philosophy was best summed up by the title of his 1989 book, Winning Starts on Monday.
The one place where his approach failed to work was at South Sydney, during a two-year stint at the end of the Seventies, but his great era was just around the corner.
Parramatta was a club of unfulfilled potential when he took over, never having won a Premiership; in Gibson's three years, they won it three times. The side he inherited was considered at the time an uncomfortable mix of grizzled veterans, like Bob "The Bear" O'Reilly and Kevin "Stumpy" Stevens, and unproven young players.
In three years under Gibson's influence, those novices – players like Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Steve Ella and Eric Grothe – became household names. Not only did they make Parramatta the best club side since the all-conquering St George of the Fifties and Sixties, they were also the backbone of the Australian team that was unbeatable for most of the Eighties.
Underneath a gruff, sometimes intimidating, exterior, Gibson was a caring, concerned individual. That was particularly the case after the death of his son, Luke, from a drugs overdose. Luke was a schizophrenic and his father was a tireless worker for mental health and drug abuse charities. He was also the master of the pithy, sometimes enigmatic one-liner. When the Eels won their first title, for instance, his speech to their jubilant fans consisted of six words: "Ding dong, the witch is dead."
He could be a controversial figure, implacable if he felt his team was being treated unfairly, as he frequently felt it was by the game's highest-profile referee, Greg "Hollywood" Hartley. Equally, he was hard on players who let their team-mates down for want of discipline.
Despite his success, Gibson left Parramatta after the 1983 triumph. He was not a believer in staying anywhere for too long and three years was just about his limit when it came to dealing with any club committee. He had only modest success with his last club side, Cronulla, and a mixed record as coach of New South Wales, losing his first State of Origin series but winning his second.
By then, his legend was completely secure, not least because of the way that coaches he had nurtured, like Wigan's John Monie, had carried on his legacy and his methods. On the day he died, the Australian Rugby League fêted the team voted the best in their positions over the last hundred years. The coach of the century was Jack Gibson.
Jack Gibson, rugby league player and coach: born Kiama, New South Wales 27 February 1929; married (three sons, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Waterfall, New South Wales 9 May 2008.
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