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.