Jamison Gibson-Park looking forward to the Croke Park experience

For most of the Leinster players the venue for the Champions Cup semi-final with Northampton Saints will be something new

“Yeah, once . . . the Dubs were playing,” says Jamison Gibson-Park. “Twice actually,” he corrects himself. Since Leinster’s 40-13 win over La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium, Croke Park and the visit of Northampton has been one of the big talking points of the upcoming Champions Cup semi-final.

Playing in the famous GAA ground will be a new experience for all the Leinster players bar one, Cian Healy.

Current head coach Leo Cullen captained Leinster 15 years ago, when they ran out 25-6 winners over Munster at the Jones’ Road venue. But loosehead prop Healy is the only current member of the squad who played in the 2009 game, while contact skills coach Sean O’Brien was involved as a replacement.

But for Gibson-Park, his lived experience of the ground is through the prism of the Dubs. While there are a couple of United Rugby Championship games for Leinster between then and now in South Africa, the Ireland scrumhalf, despite having played in many of the big rugby grounds in the world, welcomes the exposure to something new.


Players see it as a hex on all their houses to talk about cup games three weeks out with league matches still to play. But with player management considerations keeping him in Dublin with Leinster’s other World Cup players, Croke Park already casts a large shadow.

“It’s pretty cool to experience that. It was pretty incredible,” he said, speaking at the Bank of Ireland announcement of a new five year sponsorship agreement with Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. “Looking forward to it, it will be cool.”

“Yeah, it’s massive. Obviously, a bit bigger than the Aviva, but the fans have been amazing really over the last couple of fixtures in the way they have showed up.

“Sold out game in the matter of a week (v La Rochelle) is pretty impressive, so I know it’s a bit bigger again but hopefully we will get that same following. It’s a pretty incredible place when it gets rocking, so hopefully we can bring a bit of that.”

Over 30,000 bigger than the 50,000 capacity Aviva. The flip side is if the ground is not sold-out, it leaves potential for the atmosphere to bleed into the open spaces around the stands. But Gibson-Park, loving this time of the year when the ground is harder and the rugby zippy, looks no further than playing the type of game at which he excels in front of any home crowd.

“I’m just trying to look at the positive side of it, try and play some good footy to try and get the fans going,” he says. “But we will be hoping that there will be a fair few fans there. I saw that they released the ticket prices. They seem to be pretty reasonable, so hopefully the fans will get out and support us.”

Since Johnny Sexton retired, one of the organic changes in Leinster has been for the 32-year-old Gibson-Park to take on more responsibility in calling the plays, when to stick or go, or when to box kick. While Ross Byrne earned man of the match against the French side in possibly his best game yet for Leinster, Gibson-Park was up there with an all-round contribution of tackling, scoring tries and everything in between.

After La Rochelle, Leinster captain Caelan Doris remarked that with Gibson-Park “the boys are all about running lines off him.” He keeps the tempo high when Leinster are motoring and is a constant attacking threat. What he is not is a player to get over excited.

“I’m pretty happy with how things have gone but there’s always room for growth so that’s what I’ll be looking to do,” he says. And taking up some of Sexton’s role? “Erm, not really a conscious thing, no. It just happens, when you lose somebody like that. Pretty kind of lucky we have the 10s that we have so. It makes my job a whole lot easier as well as a forward pack that’s going forward.”

At Leinster he has played under a number of attack coaches. He was at the club for about a year at the back end of former fullback Girvan Dempsey’s time. Then former Argentina outhalf Felipe Contepomi arrived, followed by Andrew Goodman with Stuart Lancaster also dipping his toe into offence.

Now the former Munster outhalf and current Hurricanes attack coach, Tyler Bleyendaal, will replace Goodman as an assistant coach, Goodman moving onto the Ireland coaching ticket to replace the departing Mike Catt as backs coach.

“I think it’s a matter of layering,” he says. “A lot of the stuff that Felipe brought us in one area, Goody then came in and stacked a few layers on it, so it’s more like that than a fresh start.”

Like Croke Park. Another layer of experience.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times