ADVANCE AUSTRALIA - TO WORLD CUP GLORY?
Jimmy Gopperth - Newcastle's saviour
Before the start of the Guinness Premiership season, Rupert Bates, in an article for Rugby News, New Zealand, interviewed Newcastle outside-half Jimmy Gopperth, whose 27 point haul last night in victory at Sale keeps the Falcons in the Premiership.
So how does Jimmy compare with Johnny? “Well Jimmy’s a better surfer,” said Newcastle captain and All Blacks prop Carl Hayman, when asked how his Opunake mate Jimmy Gopperth would fill the boots of England’s World Cup hero Jonny Wilkinson at English Premiership club Newcastle.
At the last count since landing in Newcastle in July on a rare scorching day in the harsh climate of England’s North East, Gopperth has been asked the Jonny question, oh, 217 times.
It is inevitable at the former North Harbour and Blues first five-eighth pulls on the Geordie number 10 jersey, but irrelevant. Wilkinson, now with Toulon in France, has missed so many club games, yet alone Test rugby, breaking about seven/eighths of his five/eighths body, that the Falcons learnt to live without him a long time ago. Wilkinson has spent more time in the Newcastle clubhouse signing autographs, or promoting clothing and moisturisers than playing at Kingston Park.
“Jonny is an exceptional player, especially what he achieved at the 2003 World Cup,” said Gopperth, who already has Wilkinson’s jersey - a red one from the 2005 British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand when Gopperth played against Wilkinson for Wellington.
Despite Dan Carter now back in the All Blacks fold after injury, there was perhaps the narrowest of windows, with Stephen Donald less than convincing as a Test pivot, for Gopperth – a Junior All Black – to take the step up to full international honours.
“It is every New Zealand boy’s dream to play for the All Blacks. But you do not plan for it and cannot dwell on it. As a professional you play to the best of your ability and Test recognition is the cherry on top. With the likes of DC and Nick Evans around, you just keep playing and hoping one day you break in,” said Gopperth, looking forward to taking on Evans and Harlequins
He has come to the Guinness Premiership for professional and family reasons with a three-year contract in his pocket.
“I chatted with Pat Lam, my Blues coach and a bit of a legend up here in Newcastle where he played. Pat was really positive about my move and he is a huge family man too,” said Gopperth, married with a baby daughter.
His wife Sarah has English ancestry, allowing Gopperth to play for Newcastle on an ancestral visa, although his appearances for the Junior All Blacks means he cannot do a Riki Flutey and switch allegiance to England through residency.
“Who knows what might happen three years down the line. I might head home or I could stay here until I am 35. I have no set plans,” said Gopperth, 26.
As well as Lam, Gopperth took soundings from The Falcons’ ‘Kiwi mafia’ of Hayman, Mark Sorenson, Brent Wilson and former Hurricanes teammate Tane Tu’ipulotu.
“With so many friends and countrymen here already it has made the move a lot easier. I had a few offers on the table, but thought Newcastle was my best opportunity and I have always fancied a shot at Premiership rugby in England,” said Gopperth.
Gopperth sees himself bringing a southern hemisphere “play what you see” mentality to running Newcastle’s game.
“I am always looking for space, be it kicking, passing or running. One of my heroes growing up was Andrew Mehrtens. Like him, I think of myself as not flashy and trying to do the basics well. I have also learnt a hell of lot playing inside Tana Umaga at Wellington.”
Newcastle director of rugby Steve Bates is already impressed with what he has seen.
“We need someone who brought an all-round game with him and with a real appetite for rugby. He has got a kicking strategy and is not simply a Carlos Spencer running it from everywhere. I spoke to a lot of our Kiwi contingent before signing him, asking about his character and ability and, like the other New Zealanders in our squad, we are delighted to have him,” said Bates.
Gopperth’s original rugby mentor was his father Gavin, who played for Opunake as well as Taranaki age group sides. His parents have a dairy farm beside Opunake, the coastal town where Hayman was born.
“Carl’s family and mine know each other well and I used to bump into Carl down the local pub at Christmas. No I never spilt his pint. It is great having Carl as my Newcastle captain. He has such a strong personality and everybody will follow him.”
The New Zealanders are certainly following each other into the surf. Tynemouth on the River Tyne has surprisingly good waves.
“Surfing is a huge passion of mine,” said Gopperth, who names Mark Occhilupo, the legendary Australian surfer, as his sporting hero.
He naturally refuses to climb into the All Blacks after their two Tri-Nations defeats to South Africa.
“The guys copped a lot of flak, but do not forget what a great side South Africa are and have been together for several years. When rugby goes wrong in New Zealand, the whole country feels it.”
When soccer goes wrong in Newcastle – and it has gone horribly wrong with the side relegated from the Premier League last season – the whole city feels it, for in Newcastle soccer is a religion.
By contrast, despite growing support for the sport in the region, Newcastle rugby players can walk the streets in relative peace.
“The guys here tell me you can enjoy yourself in town and do not get supporters coming down hard on you after a defeat, which is refreshing.”
The night before a game to help him relax and sleep, Gopperth visualises his kicks sailing between the posts. I was going to tell him in England we get to sleep by counting sheep, but that would have been a cheap gap about New Zealanders and Hayman was sitting at the next table. Kick his goals in real life and for Johnny read Jimmy.
THE BEST RUGBY WEEKEND OF THE YEAR?
It traditionally serves up epic contests and this year, the competition's 15th, is no different.
The European Cup has had an incredible impact on a sport already immensely proud of its social brotherhood, stretching hands of friendship across the sea, to buy you a beer, lend you a mattress, whoever your team may be.
In 1995, as an ignorant Englishman, I would have been hard-pressed to locate Munster. A whiskey distillery in Cork was the only cultural well I had drunk from until then. It was the Heineken Cup that brought the force of nature that is Munster rugby to a wider audience. Limerick's Thomond Park is now on the list of sporting venues to experience before you die.
To watch the red army on the march to a European away game, even if their wretched camper vans nick all the parking spaces, is a sight to behold and any number of French towns and cities in the south-west, with rugby rivers running through them, are enough to make Bacchus and Epicurus kill for a pair of tickets.
Whisper who dares, but Munster are now only the second best rugby province in Ireland. The city slickers from Dublin, Leinster, only went out and got a pack worthy of the name, bolted on the Aussie warrior that is Rocky Elsom and won the Heineken Cup last season.
Elsom may have returned to Australia to play Super 14 rugby with the Brumbies (surely it is only a matter of time before his home city of Melbourne draws him to the new Rebels franchise), but he has left a legacy. Notably in Leinster and Ireland number eight Jamie Heaslip, now a young rugby player of massive influence and authority.
But the first Heineken quarter-final on Friday night in Dublin between Leinster and French side Clermont will be one and lost further forward in the front-row. Clermont have one of the finds of the Six Nations in France Grand Slam prop Thomas Domingo, five foot seven inches of pocket Hercules in the scrum and alongside him Argentine hooker Mario Ledesma, 37 years young next month and Georgian prop Davit Zirakashvili, who England wish had unearthed a granny from Haywards Heath.
Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Jamie Heaslip may be the stellar (or Guinness) names in the Leinster line-up, but tomorrow night will be all about Stan Wright, John Fogarty and CJ Van der Linde.
The European Cup is nothing if not cosmopolitan as a Cook Islander, an Irishman and a South African, lock front-row horns, muscle and machismo with a Frenchman, Argentine and Georgian.
Let's hear it for the fat boys as a sensational weekend of Heineken Cup action begins.