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'When Jimmy made that decision to leave his game upped actually'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Wasps boss Lee Blackett doesn’t believe rugby is witnessing the start of a trend whereby players regularly play on professionally into their late 30s, describing the durability of Jimmy Gopperth to still be thriving in the game at the age of 38 as an exception. The veteran – who will turn 39 on June 29 – is set to leave the Coventry-based club after seven seasons and has inked a two-year deal at Leicester.

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It was 2004 when Gopperth broke through into the Wellington NPC team, going on to enjoy four Super Rugby seasons with the Hurricanes and another at the Blues before heading to the northern hemisphere where he spent four seasons with Newcastle and another two at Leinster before signing for Wasps in 2015. 

The soon-to-be 38-year-old out-half Stephen Myler recently signed a one-year extension at Ospreys while tighthead John Afoa, who will be 39 in October, has agreed to a two-year deal that will take him to Vannes in the French Pro D2 after four seasons at Bristol. Along with Gopperth, the trio are examples of players for whom age is no barrier. 

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However, Wasps boss Blackett doesn’t believe this late-30s endurance in the game will become a trend any time soon. “It is purely down to the individual,” he said when quizzed by RugbyPass about the prospect of Gopperth playing on away from Wasps at the Tigers following his upcoming 39th birthday.

“The average person will not make it that far but if you are a top pro and you look after yourself and you look after your body, there is a chance you can make it but you have got to be a special type of person to do it, that is for sure.”

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What has Gopperth done to keep himself in fine fettle in his late 30s and in demand at Wasps’ rivals Leicester? “He will probably say the amount of golf that he plays, but I just think he is a good pro, works hard, never had too many issues, just had one bad season with an ACL. Apart from that, he is available for 90-odd per cent of the games, he makes himself available. 

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“It’s not like he isn’t physical because he is, he brings a physical side when he needs to. He is just a really good pro off the field, he looks after himself, has a good lifestyle and as a result, has carried on playing for this long.”

With just two games remaining in the Gallagher Premiership season for Wasps, Gopperth has been said to be leading the charge on the club’s training ground this week ahead of Saturday’s European Challenge Cup semi-final away to Lyon – a last-four encounter offering the tantalising prospect for Gopperth to sign off with some silverware if his team can reach the May 27 final in Marseille against either Toulon or Saracens.  

“That is where he is, he wants to sign off in style,” enthused Blackett ahead of the upcoming Wasps trip to France. “When Jimmy spoke about leaving and he made that decision he was going to leave his game upped actually, I would go as far as to say he found a little bit more even.

“He is going to go out on a high and how he would want Wasps fans to remember him, they will remember him for what he is. He is a guy who has kicked so many to win us games, he has come up with big moments to win us games that he deserves all the credit he gets when he does leave. Hopefully, he will be remembered fondly for years for what he has done, how much he has dedicated his career to this club.”

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It was in April last year that Gopperth explained in a RugbyPass interview what keeps him so fresh. “You have got to keep in good shape,” he said at the time, sounding as enthusiastic as ever about his sport. “I have always been a hard trainer, have never cut corners and always make sure I do the best I can do every day.

“A big help this year actually is I have gone away from the ice baths. Brad Shields was moving house and he couldn’t take a spa pool to his new house. I was, ‘I’ll take it’. That has been the best thing ever. I sit in the spa pool every day after training and that heat on my muscles and my joints has made me feel like a million dollars. That has been a great investment.

“Also a big thing for me – and I have done this right throughout my whole career – is I have things outside rugby. In New Zealand especially, and at Newcastle and Leinster as well, I was always surfing and it just takes my mind off rugby for whatever hours I’m surfing.

“These days golf is my big passion off the rugby field and I don’t think about rugby at all. That mental refresh, just having something to think about outside of rugby, is invaluable. When I was young I used to think rugby 24/7 – most young boys do. But that mental freshness I get from competing in a different sport outside of rugby really helps me when I come to training.”

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