Jamison Gibson-Park poised to grasp his opportunity in Marseille

Leinster scrumhalf comes of age for first start in final

He’s 30, he’s playing the best rugby of his career and he’s become the fulcrum of both the Leinster and Irish teams, yet it’s really only this season that Jamison Gibson-Park has become a 10-year overnight success story.

Prior to this season, his sixth with Leinster, he’d only started five Champions Cup games. The other 24 had been off the bench. He started the semi-final against the Scarlets in 2019 and played the last quarter of the final against Racing 92 in Bilbao – and talks of how Leinster want to maintain their semi-final form into the final better than they did that season.

Even so, he remained the understudy to Luke McGrath for the most part and was also a victim of the three-into-two EPCR/EU ruling which restricted Leinster to picking two from Gibson-Park, James Lowe and Scott Fardy. He missed out on both the semi-final and final in 2019, when Hugh O’Sullivan was the reserve scrumhalf, and was injured for last season’s semi-final against La Rochelle.

“Yeah, it’s tough. Unbelievably tough. I’ve had a few of them now,” He admits. “There’s nothing worse. Especially when you think you might be able to do something to help, whether you could or not, you don’t know, but it is tough to sit and watch, for sure.”

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But those experiences will fuel Gibson-Park’s determination in his first final when Leinster meet La Rochelle at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseilles on Saturday (kick-off 5.45pm local time/4.45pm Irish, live on Virgin Media, Channel 4 and BT Sport).

“Yeah, definitely. I’m looking forward to it now. Obviously it would have been good to come up against Ta [Tawera Kerr-Barlow] or whatever, but we’ll see how that works out,” adds Gibson-Park of his La Rochelle counterpart and fellow Kiwi, who suffered a fractured hand in their semi-final win, albeit Ronan O’Gara has intimated that he is looking into acquiring hurling gloves for his first-choice scrumhalf.

“He’s been very, very good for them – the 9-10 axis, Ihaia West as well. A couple of guys I actually know pretty well from my time in New Zealand, so he [Kerr-Barlow] is a massive loss. He looks as though he’s a pretty big leader in their camp as well. I’m not too sure what they’ll do, whether they’ll play the young fella at ‘9′ [Thomas Berjon] or [Arthur] Retiere comes in.”

He describes West as “a pretty good mate” since their days together with the Blues and the New Zealand Maori.

“Last year, I was chatting to him a good bit before the match. So it will be good to butt heads again.”

When Gibson-Park himself first relocated to Leinster at the age of 24 he had started seven Super Rugby matches and been a replacement in 33. Yet some had seen his natural talent. Colin Cooper was Gibson-Park’s first head coach with Taranaki and last March told The Irish Times of Gibson-Park’s times in 22-metre shuttle runs. “He had a huge conditioning base. He’s also very quick and so his speed times were right up there.”

Gibson-Park laughs when reminded of those days.

“I used to like running. During school I was pretty handy at the old cross country. But I was very small. I was 60 kilos dripping wet when I left school. Hadn’t touched a weight in my life, so it was easy for me to do those tests. I was a skinny little fella, probably built more for running than I was for rugby.”

Cooper also spoke of how he had to encourage a reluctant Gibson-Park to practice his box-kicking. Although Cooper saw a big improvement, Gibson-Park says: “Even when I got here, I still couldn’t kick snow off a rope. There’s been a bit of a journey over the last few years, and just getting the reps in because I wouldn’t have done as much kicking as most ‘9s’ on this side of the world. Still a fair way to go, but it’s certainly a skill I’ve had to get better at.”

Gibson-Park hadn’t played for Ireland before the pandemic but was promoted higher in the pecking order than was the case with Leinster as soon as lockdown ended, with Andy Farrell quick to identify that his speed to the base and decision-making at high speed would suit Ireland’s game.

“Yeah, probably a little bit surprised to be honest,” he admits of his late blooming. “Certainly when I first got here, I wouldn’t have seen myself getting to this level and playing for Ireland. It’s been pretty unreal and hopefully there’s still a bit more to go. It’s been a bit of a journey.”

Stuart Lancaster has spoken of Gibson-Park believing in himself more and the player himself attributes it to “application”, adding: “I think just with age and a little bit of maturity now, you just start to care more about the day to day, building better habits.”

“Leadership is probably the other big thing. I’ve had the privilege of working with some pretty unbelievable rugby brains over the last five/six years, and I’ve certainly learned a lot about myself and a lot about the game as well. I have to thank those guys a lot, Stu and Leo, and having worked with players like Johnny and Isa.”

Of Sexton, Gibson-Park says: “I was obviously a nervous wreck the first few times, either training with him or against him. He’s always competitive. You guys have heard about him. It’s always just looking for the best.

“He’s probably the most driven player I’ve ever seen, especially for someone his age, he just turns up every day. With Johnny the understanding of the game is on another level, a joy to work with really.

“I spend nearly every day with him. I don’t know, I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing his trumpet too much but his intellect is just . . . he sees the game so early.”

Gibson-Park hasn’t seen either of his parents or family in New Zealand since before the pandemic, which makes the prospect of touring his homeland this summer seem almost surreal.

“It’s probably something that will hit you more when you are in the moment. I look forward to it provided I can get on the flight.

“That day was pretty emotional in itself,” he adds in reference to Ireland’s win over the All Blacks last November. “But getting the chance to go back down there and play in front of family which I haven’t had the chance to do yet would be incredible.”

Some journey alright, and far from over.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times