The Alex Gibbon story is reasonably well known in rugby circles: he and his brother grew up on their grandparent’s NSW north coast farm with his cerebral palsy-afflicted mother, having escaped their abusive, but mentally-challenged father as Alex entered high school.
This isn’t a re-telling of that story, but rather the incredibly inspiring rugby story that has come from that far-from-idyllic upbringing.
I’ve been lucky enough to interview and chat with lots sportspeople in this line of work, but few have struck me as much as Brisbane City winger Alex Gibbon did this week. As we worked our way through his rugby life, and how he made potentially life-changing but completely rational decisions along the way, one constant thought was in mind: this kid is far more worldly and switched on than your average 24-year-old.
Gibbon’s maternal grandfather got he and his brother – Western Sydney Rams prop Matt – into rugby, and it was on the field that the Gibbon boys could finally be ‘normal kids’. But they weren’t just normal kids, they were kids with talent, and it wasn’t long before Alex started making age representative sides.
And already, the work ethic that Gibbon is now widely respected for among his Brisbane City and Queensland Reds squad mates was starting to shine through.
An opportunity to come into a Far North NSW side saw Gibbon stand out and receives NSW Country selection, and from there, the NSW Under-17s side alongside good mate from the north coast, NSW Waratahs no.8 Jed Holloway.
From there, the scholarship offers came flooding in. He could have gone to Newington or Trinity Collage down in Sydney, but chose to stay closer to home, once a similar offer came up.
“The reason I went to Nudgee was pretty simple, it was only two hours away from where I was from. As a kid, I always played all my rep footy in Queensland because NSW Country and country footy was so far away, and so for us, the closest city to play and watch rugby was always Brisbane,” Gibbon explained.
Gibbons maintained his links to NSW Country rep sides once the school rugby season was over, and after another successful season with the Country Under-18s, the Sydney clubs started making contact. What the 17-year-old Gibbon did next, in deciding to join Southern Districts for the 2011 season is quite extraordinary.
“At the time, I asked all the clubs for a job,” Gibbons begins his explanation. “I wanted to do a trade at that stage, and Southern Districts were the first club to come through.”
No doubt his mate Holloway already being at Souths that was a factor in his decision, but for a 17-year-old to have that sort of clarity of thinking about his future is quite refreshing. He made a life-changing decision to move away from home and play rugby, but while doing that, he was also conscious and smart enough to think about life after playing.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m any different, but I think the problem with a lot of kids these days is that we don’t know what we want to do. From my grandfather’s era, they were sort of told what they should do and they just did the job.
“For me, I just went down there and I said, ‘I want to come out of this qualified at something’ – because you never know what might happen, you could get injured – and I didn’t want to go down there and put all my effort into rugby, and if it didn’t work out after three or four years down there, have nothing to show for it.
“That was the biggest thing for me; what would happen if it didn’t work out,” Gibbon said.
Gibbon was marking his mark at Souths, and during the 2012 season was invited to train with the Australian Sevens side by then coach Michael O’Connor. “They smashed us. I wasn’t up to it at all, to be honest with you, and he never asked me to come back,” Gibbon says.
But it was great opportunity for him to see what he needed to work on to get to the next level. The following year, he played in a Sevens tournament and played well enough to earn another invite.
“When he [O’Connor] asked me to come back, I beat everyone in the fitness testing. So it quite a good learning curve.”
And so began a three season stint in the Australian Sevens program, which included the first forays into professionalism as the qualification process for the 2016 Olympic Games program commenced in earnest. Gibbon says he loved everything about the Sevens program; the travel, his teammates, the time and the ability to work on rugby skills and fitness fulltime. But his time also coincided with a lot of instability around the Men’s Sevens coaching, and there were a lot of changes during his time.
And he didn’t necessarily get to play a lot of rugby. He was picked up by the then Greater Sydney Rams for the 2014 NRC, but never pulled on their jersey.
“There were three of us come back from the Sevens, and we got back in time for the first couple of training sessions, but we weren’t really allowed to play after that, because we were starting preseason going into the [Olympic] qualification year,” he says.
“That was one of the main reasons I decided to leave the Sevens program; I felt like I missed out on a lot of football. Sevens [tournaments are] once every two months, and in between you’re training but not playing any rugby. That was the biggest thing for me, to get back into that XVs environment and play every week.”
He played the end of the 2015 Sevens World Series, and came back to Souths in time for the finals but asked for a release from the Sevens setup to link up with the Rams for the 2015 NRC. Then his rugby journey took another sudden turn.
“Nick Stiles called me and asked if I’d like to come up and play for Brisbane City, as they were a bit short on outside backs. It sort of worked perfectly, because my partner worked in Brisbane and my family were obviously up there too, so it was an awesome opportunity to possibly earn a contract with the Reds, because for me as a kid, they were my team.
“I was just about to re-sign with the Rams, too, and the Rams coach was Jim Williams, who was also my couch at Southern Districts. And Jim just said, ‘mate, you need to go’. He was very supportive; he gave me a lot of crap when we played the Rams later in the year, but he was a huge reason why I headed up to Queensland.”
Linking with Brisbane City proved a masterstroke, playing eight games in all, including the Final victory against Canberra. And, he likes to point out, he gave him opportunity go head-to-head with younger brother Matt, who made his NRC debut for the Rams last season as well.
“It was quite funny last year, because he cleaned me out in a ruck, and a bit later he was running forward, and so I shot out of the line to smash him, and he stepped me at the last minute, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t believe my 100+ kilo brother had just stepped me!
“On the weekend [just gone], I was out for revenge, and got to find him once. I just hit him as hard as I could and grabbed onto him and didn’t let go. At the end of the game I reminded him of it, but he reckoned he couldn’t remember it, so I got some footage this week and sent to him as a reminder. He needs to see it again, definitely.”
In early July, he achieved the childhood dream, making his Super Rugby debut for the Reds in Round 16 against the Chiefs, and followed it up with another strong performance off the bench the following week against the Melbourne Rebels.“When I found out before the Captain’s Run [ahead of the Chiefs game], obviously I was pretty pumped, but I just tried to train as normal and keep everything the same as when I’d played for the Australian Sevens side, you know, just going through the routine.
“But it was pretty hard to hold back my smile and my happiness, and I probably called most of my family to tell them I was going to play.
“And it was so much fun. It was so good to run out and play for a team that I used to go up to Ballymore and watch with my grandfather; it was just awesome.”
To talk to Alex Gibbon is a joy, because to hear him outline his rugby journey after what he’s already endured in his life is just quite remarkable. So many gifted kids in his situation might’ve gone off the rails, or wasted their talents, or just taken a shortcut here and there. But Gibbon’s work ethic hasn’t allowed any shortcuts, and every time he’s made the next step, it’s because he’s worked hard for the opportunity.
It’s an absolute credit to him as a footballer, and as a young man that he’s been able to achieve what he has.
“I guess I get it all from growing up on the farm with my grandfather; he used to get Matt and I up quite early to do things even though we didn’t want to do them, and I think that instilled that work ethic we have.
“I just find that the harder you work, the easier things come. That’s my attitude when I play, I just want to get stuck in to whoever I’m up against and try and beat my opposition. And once you beat someone a few times, you’ve got the upper hand.”
Brisbane City host the UC Vikings at Ballymore Stadium on Sunday at 1pm.