Saturday 26 May 2018

Gopperth continues to surf the big waves

Wasps' former Leinster out-half preparing to renew acquaintances with old colleagues

Jimmy Gopperth kicks a penalty for Wasps against Toulon last Sunday and, below, in action for Leinster (AP)
Jimmy Gopperth kicks a penalty for Wasps against Toulon last Sunday and, below, in action for Leinster (AP)
David Kelly

David Kelly

Surfers never know whether the next wave will be a big one or a baby one. Surfers never care. They have to ride it anyway.

For much of his career, that is how Wasps' - and for two seasons until last May, Leinster's - Kiwi out-half Jimmy Gopperth has rolled. Nothing else to do, save be submerged beneath the foam.

Now 32, he has confronted his career choices the way he approaches defences - right on the gain-line, in their face. After all, this is the man who followed Jonny Wilkinson at Newcastle but still emerged as a hero himself.

At Wasps, he faced another familiar scenario; a veteran scrapper - "journeyman" some in the bleachers like to spit - arriving when a young, exciting player was already destined to explode (Ruairidh Jackson).

Three years ago, he arrived at Leinster and faced all these problems at once, and more - an icon, Johnny Sexton, had left, Ian Madigan, a fans' favourite, was destined to be his replacement and the coach who'd signed the interloper, Joe Schmidt, had upped sticks and left the province.


Instead, Gopperth usurped Madigan much more often than not - Schmidt, without a hint of irony, considering he'd bought the guy, constantly reminded everyone of this.

Somehow, in some people's eyes at least, Gopperth became the bellwether for all that was wrong with Leinster, Matt O'Connor, Irish rugby; for all we know, he might even have been blamed for those insanely loud PA folk who destroy atmospheres during Irish sports occasions.

"I really enjoyed the whole set-up, playing amongst the boys," says Gopperth, whose failed drop-goal attempt almost secured a Champions Cup final place before O'Connor was sacked last year.

"You're always going to get strong opinions and attitudes. Leinster had always historically been very much a home-grown team.

"There aren't that many foreigners who come into the team, there are only really three or four there in any given year. The rest of them are players who have grown up around the area, the fans know a lot of them personally. As a foreigner, it is hard to come into that group as an outsider.

"For any fans, the local home-grown talent is the one. Obviously, with Johnny going, the whole thing at Leinster was about him.

"And then when this surfer foreigner guy comes in and starts taking other people's slots, it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea. But I'd like to think that every time I put the jersey on, I did my best.

"I'd throw my body on the line every time I play in whatever jersey I play. People are always going to have mixed opinions, they either like the way you play or they don't. I enjoyed it and as long as my team-mates and coaches thought I was doing a job for them, I was happy."

Having been signed by Schmidt, his former New Zealand schoolboy coach, he regretted missing the opportunity to renew his acquaintance but felt the players, not O'Connor, undermined Leinster.

"For sure, when you're signed by a coach, you'd like to end up playing for him, too. I had him at schools and he was a huge influence," he explains.

"When he rang me up to say he'd got the Ireland job, he assured me that Matt O'Connor wanted me and I got on well with him.

"He constructed the team well and we were happy with the way things we were going. We succeeded well in the first year and should have been in a European final last season.

"Not once did Matt tell us kick here, you have to do this or that. If you look at Leinster now, they are still very exit-focused, Ireland are very exit-focused.

"Probably it seemed like we were kicking a lot more, but because we had younger guys in our team, the opposition would put us under pressure and we'd end up in the back-field and we were exiting us a lot of times.

"But Matt wanted us to play, he never told us not to play. It was up to us to scan where the opportunities were and then take them. So it was up to us and the players let the coaching staff down. Not all the blame should have gone on Matt, the players should ship it too."

Most of the Leinster faithful respected him; all of the Leinster staff, too; he missed the RDS win but is anticipating this weekend's re-match. So too Eoin Reddan.

"He's the kind of guy who will have a laugh and a joke on the pitch so I'm sure he'll be attempting to do that," smiles the scrum-half.

"I, of course, am not that guy so we'll see how that goes! I've stonewalled a few of my friends playing but I'm not sure I'll be able to do it with Jimmy."

Gopperth nods knowingly. "We should create opportunities for others because we'll be worried about each other all the time!

"It was pretty surreal being over there for the first game and then sitting on the other side of the fence for a start, especially not playing. But when you've been involved with another team and you do so well, you don't want to be gloating so I was trying not to smile."

He has another job now. Another wave to surf.

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