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3 years ago

When Tana Umaga spoke, Jimmy Gopperth listened. The Wellington shed would fall deathly silent as their captain rose; his presence awesome, his words simple yet stirring. Gopperth was just a kid back then, a cub in a den of All Blacks. He feasted on Umaga’s intellectual nectar and has carried those lessons with him ever since.

Almost two decades on, at the age of 37, the wisdom of Umaga still flickers in his mind. Gopperth’s leadership and street-smarts have helped steer Wasps from the pre-pandemic depths of the Gallagher Premiership to within one game of their first title since 2008, a seismic final against Exeter Chiefs beckoning this Saturday.

“By God, when Tana spoke, everyone just went ‘zip’, dead silent, eyes straight on,” the playmaker tells The XV. “Everyone had so much respect for him.

You get a lot of guys, even high-quality leaders, who will talk for the sake of talking. Tana just knew what to say.

Jimmy Gopperth on the leadership of ex-New Zealand captain Tana Umaga

“He always knew what to say at the right time. He didn’t speak an awful lot but, when he did, there was no white noise, it was just straight, specific points of what needed to happen in that moment. That’s the kind of thing I’ve tried to take into my leadership role now.

“You get a lot of guys, even high-quality leaders, who will talk for the sake of talking. It all sounds good, but it doesn’t need to be said. For some reason, Tana just knew what to say. He understood his players so well.

“When times were tough in the middle of games, and you had a guy like that… I learnt a hell of a lot from him.”

Tana Umaga
Tana Umaga had a huge impact on Jimmy Gopperth’s career (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

There is a beautiful symmetry to this nostalgia. These days, Gopperth is the tutor and Umaga’s nephew Jacob, the pupil. The lithe fly-half has sparkled since returning from a Mitre 10 Cup stint with Auckland two years ago, where he stayed with his uncle. It was a transformative experience. With Gopperth on his outside shoulder at No12, they are Wasps’ footballing hub.  

“It’s crazy how the world goes,” said Gopperth. “Jacob has come on leaps and bounds since he had that little trip to New Zealand – he has come back a different player.

For sure, he’s a future England No10, he has all the capabilities, so much time on the ball. He’s just so relaxed, he takes every game as it comes

Jimmy Gopperth on Jacob Umaga

“For sure, he’s a future England No10, he has all the capabilities, so much time on the ball. He’s just so relaxed, he takes every game as it comes and doesn’t get too flustered before matches.

“Even if things don’t go his way, he seems to be able to calm himself and know which task is ahead. All the little bits of the game, he’s just going to get better and better the more time he plays in the No10 shirt.”

Gopperth’s own rustic beginnings are nourishment for the soul. His family owned a dairy farm in Pihama, a little spot on the gorgeous western tip of New Zealand’s North Island. He grew up juddering around the rutted tracks on farmyard machinery and surfing the waves of the Tasman that lapped the shores by the property.

His father erected a set of rugby posts in a cow paddock and Gopperth would hoof balls at them until the sun came down and then hoof some more. He spent nearly as many hours repairing the structure after the beasts had waddled in and knocked it down.

Jimmy Gopperth Jacob Umaga
Jimmy Gopperth tags teams with Jacob Umaga to stop Janse van Rensburg (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“The cows would always use it as a bloody rubbing pole so we had to fix it every month,” said Gopperth with a laugh. “I love kicking and always have done. I just love the game. 

“I had a lot of freedom growing up. I was always outside. I had to get bribed to come in to eat dinner because I’d be out doing everything all the time, whatever the weather. It’s a very special place.”

Tilling the land and kicking for goal taught Gopperth the value of hard work, but at Wasps this season, graft alone wasn’t getting the job done.

No matter how hard they trained, how much sweat sloughed off their bodies, they kept sliding down the table. There was too much anxiety about the place, stoked by so many near-misses and hard-luck stories. 

The campaign grew pallid. Momentum was non-existent. Come February, Dai Young was gone as director of rugby and his free-thinking young attack coach Lee Blackett took the helm.

Blackett has orchestrated a sensational revival. From 10th place when Young left, Wasps shot up the league like a firework. They won 12 of their 13 remaining Premiership matches and roared their way to second. The rampant Bristol Bears and all of their maestros were mauled in a crushing 47-24 semi-final triumph at the Ricoh. 

“The No1 thing other than hard work – because we have worked bloody hard on all the fundamentals of our game – is enjoyment,” said Goppeth. “That is what Lee is trying to instil.

The weight has been lifted off our shoulders to enable us to put in the performances that we’ve been training hard for.

Jimmy Gopperth on the influence of Wasps head coach Lee Blackett

“Before, we got a bit uptight and worried about results, and that put pressure on certain individuals to perform. Lee came in and said, ‘Look, we’re a decision-making team, I don’t care if you drop a pass, I don’t care if there’s a three-on-two and we take it and drop it, I want you guys to make decisions and I’ll back you 100 per cent. Even if we’re on our own goal-line and there’s a five-on-two, if you didn’t take it, I‘d be disappointed’.

“You can see we are playing with smiles on our faces. The weight has been lifted off our shoulders to enable us to put in the performances that we’ve been training hard for.”

Blackett is hugely competitive, and it shows. At 30, he became the youngest boss in England’s top two tiers when he was appointed player-coach at Rotherham Titans. He got them to the play-offs in both seasons in charge, overcoming major constraints. Two years later, in 2015, Wasps put him in charge of their attacking shape. The players love and respect him and his youth gives him a tangible feel for what they experience on a daily basis.

Technically, in the top job, Blackett has altered very little. What he has done is give the players greater control of their destiny. Togetherness, ownership and collaboration are just as important and equally powerful as anything drilled on the training field.

“No structure has changed to the game plan whatsoever,” said Gopperth. “But it’s all about enjoyment. There are so many fun elements to training now and there is so much interaction between coaches and players.

“The first meeting of the week is between the leadership group and coaches, and the last meeting of the week before the game is between the leadership group and the coaches, making sure everyone is on the same page.

Jack Willis
Jack Willis is the form back row in England (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

“The coaches give us their thoughts on the plan and if we want something changed then they’ll change it for us. It’s a real collective, it empowers the players and the players feel a lot of ownership and accountability.

“That’s what we want as a team, to have the power but you need to be accountable for your actions. It’s a really nice balance between being coach-led and player-led.”

At the heart of the Wasps surge lies England’s ultimate burglar. Jack Willis thundered back from the heinous injury that snatched away his place on the Test tour of South Africa in 2018 and kept him sidelined for a year and a half.

He can, as Gopperth points out, perform the splits while locked, limpet-like, over the ball, owing as much to his industrious rehabbing as it does natural athleticism. Willis has not just pilfered more ball than anyone else in the Premiership, but affected more than double as many turnovers as the nearest challenger. Loosening Vladimir Putin’s grip on Russian power is easier than displacing Willis from a ruck. 

Come Saturday, the flanker’s guile will need to match his grunt. Get a jackal wrong anywhere in the middle third of the pitch, Exeter will kick into your 22, and we all know what happens when they get there. But in the newly-crowned Premiership player of the year, Wasps wield a devastating weapon, one of the only men in England capable of depriving the Chiefs of the multi-phase possession upon which they thrive.

If he is not the starting No 6 or No 7 for England, a lot of people will be very baffled.

Gopperth on Wasps back-row Jack Willis

“Jack’s a freak, isn’t he?” said Gopperth. “Being announced in an England squad, getting that horrendous injury, mentally it was huge on him, and he has fought so hard to get back fit, with a lot of ups and downs and setbacks along the way.

“His brother Tom has been pretty influential as well. Jack was always known as the defender and ‘jackaler’ and Tom was known as the better ball-carrier and attacker.

“People used to wind-up Jack about that, but his ball-carrying has been phenomenal. He’s not just a ‘jackaler’, he has a really balanced game. And he’s so young – it’s going to be scary how far he can go in the game. He has a really balanced life with his property business and has a great mindset.

“He is so determined. If he’s not the starting No6 or No7 for England, a lot of people will be very baffled.”

Meeting Exeter rekindles dark memories for Gopperth. Three years ago, the Chiefs capped their storybook rise from obscurity with a maiden league title, Wasps sunk by Gareth Steenson’s kick in the last throes of extra-time.

Saturday will be different, of course. Twickenham will not be a teeming cauldron as it was that day. Wasps have had an extra week of rest and preparation – and have been cleared to play despite 11 Covid-19 positive cases amongst players and staff in the past week – while the Chiefs were crowned champions of Europe in a majestic showpiece against Racing 92.

Jimmy Gopperth
Jimmy Gopperth tasted defeat at the hands of Exeter in 2017 Premiership Final (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Wasps are the rank outsiders, the odds almost as long as 3-1 with some bookmakers, as they try to maim the Devon juggernaut in a way virtually no one has.

“The 2017 final hurt, it hurt a lot of us,” said Gopperth. “Yes, it’s not going to be in front of 80,000 on Saturday, but experience goes a long way in big games and a lot of us in our group have experienced big finals.

“The Kiwi guys like Brad Shields, Malakai Fekitoa, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Lima Sopoaga – they’ve experienced finals back home. There is enough experience now to help us get through the emotional part of it, and then it’s just down to playing how we play.

“We can’t look at a team like Exeter and change our style, because that’s not us. We have to keep playing the way we play and it’s up to them to try to stop us.

Their defence is strong but there are a few really cool opportunities that excite me as a player to attack against.

Jimmy Gopperth on Gallagher Premiership final opponents Exeter

“We all know about their forward play, their driving, pick-and-go play – it’s about discipline. You can’t be loose on discipline or they’ll kick the corners and we’ll be defending mauls all day. You have got to deny them access through sharp discipline.

“Their defence is strong but there are a few really cool opportunities that excite me as a player to attack against. Obviously, I don’t want to give those away, but we are really excited by the challenge – and that’s how finals should be.”

Professional careers in modern rugby are not supposed to last as long as Gopperth’s – not with the sickening brutality of the game today, not with a concussion-rate that climbs and then climbs again, and certainly not with a grim ACL rupture suffered at the age of 35.

Jimmy Gopperth
Gopperth was on the scoresheet against Exeter earlier this month (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

As he prepares for the howitzer showdown, Gopperth knows how lucky he is. But he also know that he is reaping the benefits of an assiduous mindset instilled back in Pihama.

“Nothing was given to me, I had to earn and work for whatever I wanted,” he said. “It was the same in rugby. There was so much talent in New Zealand, so I had to work hard and that’s the No1 thing I try to pride myself on – hard work.

“I might not be real flashy but every time I pull on a jersey I’ll give it 100 per cent, no matter what the stakes are. I train hard, no doubt, I never ask to sit out a rep. I always have the trainer saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to pull you out, don’t get mad with me, we’re going to save you here and give you a bit of a rest!’

“I still get nervous before games, which is really good – if that stopped, there’d be something wrong – but I am a lot more relaxed, comfortable with my knowledge and what I can expect.”

The purity of farm life steeled Gopperth for obstacles faced and challenges surmounted, from the trampled cow paddock to the grandeur of Twickenham. And fittingly, should Wasps pull off the spectacular, there will be an Umaga by his side.

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