‘I really enjoyed my time at Leinster but knew Johnny was only gone for two years’

JIMMY GOPPERTH IS on his way to the Wasps training ground when he answers the phone. Our conversation breaks the monotony of the drive to work, where — for the time being — another morning of painstaking rehab work under the instruction of the strength and conditioning staff awaits.

He’s into week seven now, and the signs of progress and incremental improvements are becoming increasingly noticeable, but there is still a long and testing road ahead. He knows that, but also knows how important it is to remain positive. 

Gopperth in action for Leinster back in 2015. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Back in August, Gopperth suffered a horrific knee injury during the pre-season fixture against Connacht, the damage so severe he required anterior cruciate ligament surgery which instantly ruled him out of action for a period of nine months.

There is never a good time to sustain an injury, not least one as serious as that, but to do so at the start of a new season is particularly cruel. What’s more, Gopperth was coming off a strong pre-season and had only been on the field 14 minutes when his knee buckled and his hopes and aspirations for the year ahead came crashing down.

The Kiwi out-half was forced to go under the knife immediately and while the operation was declared a ‘success’, the devastating nature of the injury was a severe blow for Gopperth and indeed Wasps for whom he has become a central figure in the last three seasons.

“It was pretty gutting,” he tells The42. “I had one of my best pre-seasons for a long time, I was feeling really good and really excited to get into the season, but hey, things happen.

“I suppose the timing of it wasn’t great but it has given me time to get back before the end of the season.”

A cursory glance at Gopperth’s Instagram account provides some insight into the journey he has to get through before even thinking about getting back to rugby again, with his first update — dated 14 September — showing just how much patience is required to build the strength back up in his right knee.

The one saving grace for the 35-year-old is that, even at this stage of his career, he has no previous mental fatigue to weigh him down during these tediously frustrating weeks and months in the gym.

“This my first major injury in my career so I haven’t been through something like this before, so I’m able to stay quite positive,” he explains.

“I don’t know what type of phases I should be going through and it’s all new to me. I’ve been really positive and I think I’m tracking pretty well so hopefully pushing as hard as I can to get back before the end of the season.”

Setting, and hitting, certain targets in the first two months has helped Gopperth to remain upbeat about the situation and arrive each morning with a steely determination to leave a few hours later having ticked off another marker.

Firstly it was TRX box squats and calf raises, and then five weeks post meniscus repair and ACL reconstruction, the use of the anti-gravity treadmill to build up the muscle again. Little things which mean a lot.

“You’re chasing little bits every single day and when you pass little goals, like when I lost my crutches, that was a big goal,” Gopperth continues.

Gopperth has enjoyed huge success with Wasps. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

“Little things like that keep you motivated and give you little boosts along the way.

“Rehab isn’t a great place to be as you’re watching all the boys play and you want to be there but you have to try and make it as positive as you can otherwise it can be a dark place.”

Thankfully, Gopperth has been able to remain in a good frame of mind through his injury lay-off and appears to be ahead of schedule in terms of his recovery, with last week’s Instagram video update showing him walking freely up and down the gym floor.

Focusing the mind outside of those four walls has played a key part in the recovery process, too.

It would be easy to become swamped by the negativity of such a cruel injury, but Gopperth has used the opportunity to dedicate time to other thing, notably launching his own kicking academy while staying in tune with the game through appearances on BT Sport. Keeping busy is important. 

“I was trying to think back to when the last time I had six months without rugby,” he explains. “It was probably when I was 14, the last time I had my last big break so I have to use this opportunity to explore different things and rugby is only for a short time, so you need different opportunities.

“Starting the kicking academy has been a good thing. It’s a passion of mine, I love kicking, and I love to give back to people and pass on my mindset and skills. It has been a good thing to trial up and I’ve had a few people from Ireland do it.

“They send in a video and I do the analysis on it and send them back the feedback and it’s a great tool to learn. It’s exciting, it’s something different and keeps my mind fresh.” 

Exploring these opportunities, and putting the building blocks in place for a career after rugby, has been a welcome distraction and made it easier for Gopperth to retain his sanity when the agony of missing out on the substance of games would ordinarily drive you mad.

He continues: “When you’re week in, week out playing rugby your mind is totally on your performance and now it’s like I’m in an individual sport. I’m worrying about myself, trying to get back rehab wise. I’ve a lot more time on my hands to think about these things and put things in place.

“Otherwise I’d do rehab, go home and I’d be dwelling on things, so you’ve got to keep your mind nice and fresh when you’re in rehab so it’s a great opportunity to do this.

“I’ve been doing a lot more stuff with BT Sport and commentary stuff, little things like that to keep me fresh and keep me in the game still. It’s been alright so far.”

The Kiwi with Ian Madigan back in 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Even still, Gopperth remains very much on the inside at Wasps, albeit at an arm’s length from what is happening on the pitch, as he continues to attend meetings and stay abreast of plans and plays with every intention of returning before the season is out.

He will travel over to Dublin today for Wasps’ Heineken Champions Cup opener against Leinster at the RDS, but his involvement, sadly, will be of superficial interest, rather than as a key protagonist in the competition opener under Friday night lights.

It’s a real shame for Gopperth, and indeed Wasps, that he won’t be able to take to the field against his former employers, three years having passed since he left Leinster to return back to England and join Dai Young’s side.

The New Plymouth native recalls his two seasons at the eastern province with great fondness, his time in Leinster blue highlighted by the club’s Pro12 title success in the 2013/14 season, as Gopperth kicked 14 points in the final victory over Glasgow Warriors.

Overall, Gopperth made 59 appearances for Leinster, registering 336 points, as he shared the out-half duties with Ian Madigan following Johnny Sexton’s move to Racing 92.

Filling the shoes of the Ireland international was always going to be a stiff task but Gopperth, having started his career in Super Rugby with the Hurricanes and Blues before catching the eye of Leinster with Newcastle, more than stood up in his two seasons under Matt O’Connor.

“I really enjoyed my time at Leinster, the people were very welcoming, my team-mates were a great bunch of lads,” he remembers. “I’m still in contact with a few of them now and looking back, I had some success when I was over there as well.”

The Pro12 final, which marked the last game of Brian O’Driscoll’s career, stands out but on the other end of the spectrum is the crushing Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Toulon in extra-time, after Gopperth had agonisingly missed a 78th-minute drop-goal attempt with the sides locked 12-12 after a mammoth battle.

“Winning the Pro12 in my first year, that was pretty special, but yeah disappointing in Europe not to get to the final that year. I hadn’t really experienced top-end European rugby before going to Leinster because I was obviously at Newcastle and we hand’t managed to be in the Heineken Cup.

“It was a big learning curve but I really enjoyed it. The emphasis Leinster put on in the European cup, the levels changed during those weeks. I enjoyed that environment where you were really pushed.”

Gopperth’s short stay in Dublin came to an end after the 2014/15 season as he took up the opportunity to go back to the Premiership with Wasps.

That missed drop goal against Toulon in Marseille in 2015. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I had a couple of good years there, I knew from the word go when I was coming over that Johnny was only going to leave for two years,” he says. “And even though they was pretty keen for me to stay, I knew with Johnny there, Mads was still there and Ross Byrne was coming through.

“I had different opportunities and obviously Wasps were pretty keen to have me over, and I’ve really enjoyed my time here. We play a great style of rugby and I’ve fitted in pretty well.”

There’s no doubt about that. In his three seasons at the Ricoh Arena, Gopperth has shown his quality and experience in becoming one of the Premiership’s most consistent performers, his playmaking abilities utilised at both out-half and inside centre.

Two seasons ago, as Wasps stormed to the Premiership final under Young, Gopperth was the standout and influential figure within the side, earning a clean sweep of player awards during that 2016/17 season off the back of 266 points, including nine tries and seven try assists.

“I learned a lot in Newcastle and then I went to Leinster and that level just increased hugely. I learned different aspects and how to improve and adapt.

“I’ve had some great success here at Wasps and been chucked around a few positions but I suppose that’s just my experience now. I have really enjoyed my time here, and done pretty well in the years I’ve been here and hopefully now we can go a step further and get some silverware.

“But going to the RDS to start is a massive task. They’re not European champions for no reason. They love this competition, they’ve got an outstanding squad and coaching staff.

“They play brilliant rugby, but we’re confident of what we can achieve and we know we have a good attacking game. Defensively the boys have been working really hard because we got a lot of slack for our defence but it’s only minor stuff.

“We’re learning a different system now with Ian Costello here, and he’s a Munster lad so he’s buzzing this week, he’s running around pumping his chest and giving us a bit of insight.

“It’s going to be a task but at the end of the day it’s an 80-minute game and the boys are really looking forward to it.”

While Gopperth misses the chances to return to the RDS, he has fond memories of his last appearance at the Dublin venue when Wasps opened their 2015/16 European campaign with a stunning 33-6 raid in round one.

A lot has changed in both camps since then and while a more battle-hardened Leinster will be determined to avoid a repeat this evening [KO 7.45pm, BT Sport], that result will infuse Wasps with the confidence they can cause an early upset in Pool 1.

Mike McCarthy, Zane Kirchner, Darragh Fanning and Gopperth celebrate Leinster’s Pro12 title. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’m not surprised whatsoever that Leinster have gone on and had very good success,” Gopperth says. “The academy guys, the Ringroses, the Ross Byrnes, were all coming through when I was there.

“The endless conveyor belt of talent at Leinster is phenomenal and the way the coaches use them in the Pro14, to give them opportunities has been hugely beneficial to the whole outfit. Someone gets injured and they chuck on one of those young kids in and the next minute they’re playing for Ireland. It’s incredible.”

Last week, Gopperth took a break from the rehab posts on Instagram and instead posted a throwback picture of himself, Zane Kirchner, Mike McCarthy and Darragh Fanning on the RDS pitch celebrating with the Pro12 trophy back in May 2014.

“I loved it there,” he adds.

“It will be good to catch up with a few of the lads, and it should be a good match as it’s two good teams going up against each other. I’m really looking forward to getting back over to the RDS and Darragh Fanning has already been onto me offering me some free burritos!

“It will be good to be back in Dublin to see some familiar faces and hopefully I’ve got a smile on my face post-match.” 

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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