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'That's where he excels': Why Gibson-Park is no longer just a sub

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

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It’s weird how regular replacement Jamison Gibson-Park has suddenly become one of the most influential players in the Leinster team that is chasing a fifth Heineken Champions Cup title for the club this weekend. When the New Zealander arrived in Ireland in 2016, he came with the reputation of being a cover player at the Blues and the Hurricanes. 

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In four seasons of Super Rugby in Auckland and Wellington, the scrum-half half started in just seven of his 40 appearances, a selection trend that continued after his arrival in Dublin as just five starts were all Gibson-Park managed in 29 Champions Cup appearances during his initial five seasons at Leinster.

However, the 30-year-old is no longer playing second fiddle provincially to Luke McGrath, his confidence inflamed like never before after he ousted Conor Murray this season as the No1 Ireland scrum-half and started seven of the eight Tests played in 2021/22 by Andy Farrell’s team. 

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Leinster still retain somewhat of a soft spot for McGrath, who has completely fallen off the Ireland radar post-Joe Schmidt. For instance, they started him at Connacht in the first leg round of 16 match in early April. However, Gibson-Park has been their preferred pick in the knockout stage matches since then, starting alongside Johnny Sexton in the return leg versus Connacht and going on to be the No9 against Leicester and Toulouse.

In total, Gibson-Park has scored four tries in his seven European appearances this term with Leinster, a strike rate compatible with his Test level exploits of three tries in seven recent Ireland outings. The great mystery, though, is why such an influential player in 2021/22 took so long to realise his potential in a slow-burning career where he seemed destined to only ever be a backup scrum-half player, not a must-pick starter. 

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Brian O’Driscoll has watched the transformation with huge interest, suggesting that the energy levels of Gibson-Park are incredible. “He is just enjoying the style of play that Leinster are playing. It suits his game, it’s fast,” said the legendary midfielder, who helped his province win the Champions Cup in 2009, 2011 and 2012, to RugbyPass. “As much as there is structure to the way he is playing, the expectation when the ball is ready to go is you move it and you don’t wait for set-ups, you don’t wait for pods to get into play. 

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Leinster probably organise themselves a little bit better, a little bit quicker than maybe they did in the past. They have got really fluid with that but if they are not set up and you throw the ball quickly because it is ready to go, it also means that the defence hasn’t a chance to set and there is an opportunity for guys to use their footwork and used their heads-up to take on what picture they are seeing in front of them. 

“That is where he excels. He has a really nice variety to his game, box kicks the pressure away from Johnny Sexton a lot of the time. He really interests the defenders, the first and second defenders around the ruck, pulling them out and putting forwards in, and then his link play and counter-attack play, just the whole lot of it is very, very good. He is defensively strong too. 

“He is really playing with an awful lot of confidence at the moment and an awful lot of fitness. He looks very, very fit, looks as though he is a guy that just keeps on going and going. People sometimes lose sight of how much running scrum-halves have to do, particularly when he is defending on the edge which he does too, to get to every ruck. To be there through 14, 15 phases is exhausting yet he never looks like a guy that has his hands on his hips, he has always got high energy, high tempo.”

  • BT Sport is the home of the European Rugby Champions Cup. The 2021/22 season concludes this weekend with Leinster vs Stade Rochelais live on BT Sport 2 at 4pm on Saturday, May 28. Find out more on how to watch at BT Sport bt.com/sport

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