From the sands of Taranaki to the stands of the Ricoh, learn about the New Zealander who's lighting the touch paper for Wasps this season in an unfamiliar role
One of the most tantalizing prospects of the new season is what the Wasps back-line will look like when everyone is available. We face a long wait to find out because Willie Le Roux won’t arrive from his Japanese sojourn with Cannon Eagles until February.
Wasps have two No 12s, Alapati Leiua and utility back Kurtley Beale, currently sidelined, while a third, Kyle Eastmond, is only just returning from injury, having been named on the bench for this Sunday’s home game against Bristol. In their absence, fly-half Jimmy Gopperth has been given the chance to start in the inside-centre position for the first time since the 2001 Junior World Cup.
His two outings to date outside Danny Cipriani, against Exeter and Leicester, have proved little short of sensational. His in-out finish against the Chiefs revealed a finishing power unknown to most, while at Welford Road he not only set up Christian Wade’s try with a steal, short-side dash and perfectly weighted grubber, but then dotted down from a driving maul in the final minute!
The value of having two playmakers on the park is well established of course, but the fact Gopperth is a proven goalkicker – with a 78% Premiership success rate last season compared to Cipriani’s 62% (at Sale) – may well prove critical when the selection battle heats up later in the season. And Gopperth’s role as goalkicker also lightens the load for Cipriani, who is free to work his magic and bring the best out of a hugely exciting back division.
Stellar names may be waiting in the wings but on present form Gopperth should be one of the first names on the Wasps team sheet all season. Certainly Bristol will have their work cut out this weekend at the Ricoh Arena, with Frank Halai’s return to the threequarter line only strengthening the Coventry-based outfit’s firepower. Gopperth will be up against USA international Thretton Palamo, one of three players making their competitive debut for Bristol.
At 33, Gopperth has been round the block a few times during a journey that started back on New Zealand’s North Island in the mid-Eighties. Rugby World got some fascinating insights into the New Zealander when interviewing him for our Uncovered section earlier this year…
I first played rugby at my local club, Opunake, aged three or four. It’s a tiny place on the coast of Taranaki; it’s where Graham Mourie is from, we’re good family friends. Dad (Gavin) used to play and coached us as kids. When he retired he coached the U21s and I used to be the ball boy. I was in love with the game all the time. I have two older sisters who don’t play, so I became the favourite pretty quickly!
Dad is a dairy farmer, in Pihama, a village about ten minutes from Opunake. That’s where I went to school as well, just up the road. The farming lifestyle is brilliant, especially where we live; it’s right on the beach, not far from the mountains, so the lifestyle, the community we’ve got around Pihama, is pretty special. It was a great place to grow up.
I was always a ten. My dad made me goalposts in the cow paddock out the back, so I was kicking from a very young age. Whenever the cows got in the paddock they’d use them as a rubbing post, so we had to fix them every month. I’d be kicking balls until late every night, they’d have to call me in. It was just one of those things I loved doing.
A lot of my best mates were a year above me, and playing with them was good for my development. I went to New Plymouth Boys High, playing right through to the first XV, then Wellington recruited me from school. I went down to Wellington, started at Petone rugby club, then later to Old Boys University because it was just up the road and I had quite a few friends playing for the club.
Grant Fox was the main ten when I was growing up. He was one of the best kickers around and probably my first inspiration. He was the first ten that I could fully remember. Obviously Merhts (Andrew Mehrtens) was the modern-day one and I was lucky enough to play against him. That was pretty cool. He was the man and obviously Carlos (Spencer) as well.
2002 was my last year at high school. I remember being on the beach supervising a drill by the third formers, listening to the Wellington Sevens on the radio. Jonah Lomu was playing and scoring ridiculous tries. And the next year I was training with him at Wellington.
The first day I turned up I was just ‘Wow! I was just listening to you, now I’m in your team’. It was Lomu, Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Jerry Collins, Rodney So’oialo, all the big stars. The list went on and on and it was ‘Wow, I’ve just come from school and this is my first professional rugby team’. They were the big, big dogs.
Our New Zealand Schoolboys team was ridiculous. Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam, Ben Atiga, Luke McAlister, Joe Rokocoko – that team was unbelievable. About 90% of them became All Blacks. We came over on a tour and played England, Wales, Scotland and France. We were only a schoolboys team playing U19s but we beat everyone except France U19s. We did a backs move against France, Joe Rokocoko went right through to score a try and for some reason the French referee said forward pass. No way was it a forward pass!
My first year of Super Rugby with the Hurricanes (2005) was pretty special. David Holwell went to Leinster so Riki Flutey was going to be the No 1 ten but he got injured in pre-season, so I got an opportunity and never looked back. I held the jersey all year and had an All Blacks trial on the back of it.
I played twice for the Junior All Blacks, against Samoa and Tonga. I was knocking on the door of the All Blacks but there was Dan Carter, Andrew Mehrtens, Nick Evans… Stephen Donald and myself were battling it out really.
I joined the Blues to try to make the All Blacks. I thought let’s see what goes. But the other tens were cemented. The World Cup was coming up, all those guys were fit and healthy, so I thought, ‘I’ve had a good crack, let’s go overseas’. As soon as I went, they got injured! (At RWC 2011, Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden were injured, resulting in Donald appearing in the final.) If I’d been in New Zealand in 2011 I’d have backed myself to be in the squad, but you don’t know. And I’ve been very grateful for what I’ve had over here.
My wife Sarah’s English ancestry meant I got a dependent’s visa at Newcastle. Her dad’s mother is English. It means you can stay five years and after that you get your green card and can come and go when you want. I was at Newcastle four years and then went to Leinster, so now I have to start again.
Newcastle and Leinster were chalk and cheese. It was totally different rugby. It’s not taking anything away from Newcastle – I really enjoyed my time there. I had to learn how to manage a game properly because more often than not we were on the back foot, so I had to adapt my game to try to keep us going forward. My time at Newcastle developed my game a lot, but going to a club like Leinster, multiple European champions, was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
The coaches at Wasps give us that confidence to play the attacking game we love. When you’ve got the calibre of players we have, you have to use those talents and back yourselves. That’s the beauty of what we’re trying to achieve here: we want to play rugby and we want to enjoy ourselves. We’ve got some great strike power, we may as well be using it.
What Dai (Young) is trying to achieve here is squad growth. When guys have been rested or injured, others have stepped in and done the job right up to the same ability. If you want to achieve things as a team, as a squad, you need competition throughout the squad. Danny coming in adds different characteristics and abilities, and he’ll help push me. We’ll push each other to be the best we can for the team.
I’ve had quite a few kicks to win a game. I had a few with Newcastle, I had one with the Hurricanes to get into a Super Rugby final, but it wasn’t a ‘buzzer beater’ (end of the game) like against Exeter (in last season’s Champions Cup quarter-final). In 2006 we played the Waratahs at the Cake Tin and our scrum got a tighthead about 53 metres out; I had a shot and got it. When it’s a buzzer beater, it’s a bit different but that’s what kickers strive for. You want that pressure.
I grew up on a beach and fell in love with surfing. I used to surf all the time when I was young. Pretty much every club I’ve been to has been by the sea and I’ve been fortunate enough to continue doing it. It’s totally individual. You could be going out surfing and no one is around you for miles, sitting in the ocean by yourself, so it’s quite peaceful and a good release away from rugby.
Mark Occhilupo, a former surfing world champion, is one of my heroes. I liked that he was a heavier guy. Most surfers these days are 60, 70 kilos but he was topping at 85-90 kilos, and he was a goofy footer like me, which means you have your right foot forward on the board. I surf all year round – if it’s freezing just put on a wet suit and away you go.
At Newcastle there was a good group of us who would surf – in my first year, myself, Carl Hayman, Mark Sorenson, Jonny Golding, my good mate and business partner, he’s still mad on surfing. He’d never surfed and then when the Kiwis turned up he took it up and has absolutely fallen in love with it. It’s good for recovery of the body as well, the day after the game. In the cold water, especially up north. Normally I go around Wales, Newquay, or jump on a train to Newcastle or go to Ireland. My favourite spot to go for surfing is in Indonesia.
I caught the golf bug at Newcastle. There were quite a few Scots in the team who were pretty good at it. I really enjoy it and try to get out as much as I can. Some days I can hit 80, the next 100. I’m inconsistent, I don’t play enough.
I have a business with Jonny Golding (ex-Newcastle prop). He came up with this great idea of selling naturally sourced goods and asked me to get involved (tribehq.co). It’s been a good journey so far. We’re really looking to build now – we’ve started a clothing range and are going to start a kids’ range. It’s really nice stuff and all sustainably sourced, we’re looking after the environment as much as we can. It’s a good venture and one we’re passionate about.
I’ve got the nickname ‘SpongeBob’. It’s because I have broad shoulders like the cartoon character. I thought I’d got rid of the name when I left New Zealand, but a few Kiwis over here obviously caught on. At Newcastle, the owner Semore Kurdi gave me a massive SpongeBob toy and I thought ‘Oh no, I’m never going to live this down!’
Dave Rennie should be the next New Zealand coach. He’s just a brilliant coach. A brilliant man-manager, he knows a lot about the game and he’s a really nice guy. I knew him when I was at Wellington. He loves the game, he loves the guys playing the game, you can see how the Chiefs play, that’s Dave Rennie all over.
The weather is a big factor in the skills gap between the northern and southern hemispheres. It’s not just skill level, it’s extras after training. Here it can be miserable and there’s no point staying out doing extras because the wind is so bad or it’s so cold that you don’t feel like you’re progressing; you’re so cold that you just want to get inside and get warm. When it’s warmer everyone stays out to practise individual skills.
Whereas back at home you’re doing that all the time, every single session, even in the winter. It doesn’t get that cold compared to here. I’m 100% a fan of summer rugby. I think it could happen and then it ends up being a global season, doesn’t it? Best of both worlds.