Matt O’Connor defends selection of Jimmy Gopperth for Toulon game
Leinster coach admits Kiwi outhalf was ‘underdone’ for quarter-final clash
Jimmy Gopperth in action for Leinster against Toulon in the Heineken Cup quarter-final last Sunday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.
That has not always been apparent in the Australian’s team selection. New Zealander Gopperth only signed when Jonathan Sexton departed, so IRFU policy has intervened to ensure Ian Madigan gets the opportunity to develop in the number 10 jersey.
Gopperth, O’Connor conceded, was “underdone” before the 29-14 defeat to Toulon last Sunday.
The 30-year-old started just one game, banking 107 minutes, to Madigan’s four Leinster starts, and 338 minutes (not including 11 minutes for Ireland in Paris), since February 14th.
“That wasn’t a major issue for us,” said O’Connor. “Jimmy was a little bit underdone, but that wasn’t particularly evident in the performance.
“Ian has to play rugby. He has played significantly more games for us this year because he needs to develop his ability to run the front end of a game because he sat behind Johnny for a long time and he hasn’t had that kind of exposure.
“There has been a conscious effort from us to give him that exposure at the front end of games so that he becomes a better player.”
Did O’Connor feel that Madigan was not ready, in terms of experience and maturity, to start Leinster’s season-defining contest away to Toulon?
“No,” he responded. “The decision was that Jimmy was better for the team in the front instance.”
Until Sunday Gopperth hadn’t worn the number 10 jersey since the Cardiff Blues victory on February 20th.
What is really puzzling is O’Connor selected Madigan for the Munster game at the Aviva stadium on March 29th, with Gopperth glued to the bench all night. Madigan landed 17 points in a six from seven place- kicking return, only to be subsequently dropped.
The inference here is that O’Connor is forced to select Madigan, as an Irish international, ahead of Gopperth to keep Leinster aligned to IRFU policy.
Yet for European fixtures O’Connor is on record as stating there are no restrictions in place. He started Gopperth for Leinster’s home and away matches against both Ospreys and Castres.
O’Connor was also asked if constantly alternating outhalf – Madigan has played in 21 games, registering 133 points over 1,158 minutes to Gopperth’s 23 games and 178 points over 1,128 minutes – was the best way to run his team.
“If you want it to be different you’d make it different, but that’s the cards that we got, that’s the squad that we’ve got.
“The reality is that Jimmy is a very experienced bloke who provides us with X. Ian is a young player who needs to get better at managing the front end of the game. It’s no bigger issue than that.”
On why they lost so comprehensively at Stade Felix Mayol, Gordon D’Arcy succinctly identified the breakdown and one opponent in particular: “Steffon Armitage.”
“They got pretty deep pockets,” D’Arcy continued. “When they took off Jonny Wilkinson [they put] Matt Giteau [to outhalf]. That was a big moment in the game, the tempo definitely changed. Gits really likes to attack the gain line. He got three clean breaks . . .”
“[Toulon are] very similar to what we do but they do it with bigger individuals. We needed to make our first-up tackles. But it is very easy to make decisions when you get two-second rucks six, seven, eight times in a row.”
D’Arcy also noted that Leinster lost because they took only one of three try-scoring opportunities.
“The young guys coming through, Jordi Murphy, getting a bit of time on the pitch, and Dave Kearney have had a lot of success and now they have the bitter side of it.
“That’s going to spur them on for the next few years.
“I’ve nothing but absolute faith in these lads. They have delivered. You don’t win trophies with guys who are a little bit suspect character wise.
“There are older guys moving on, Brian and Leo, so there will be responsibility on younger guys to come through and drive that ethos of Leinster.”
But Leinster, Munster and Ulster’s ability to compete with the increasingly deeper pockets of French clubs will, O’Connor believes, continue to be hampered by the IRFU’s policy of nurturing home-grown talent ahead of recruiting world- class foreigners.
“There are a lot of blokes globally that would come and play for Leinster but that’s not the reality,” O’Connor added. “It is for no other reason except the union say that you can’t have them.”