‘I’ve been blown away by the quality of the Pro D2’

Veteran Jimmy Gopperth would have rolled out of bed in France with a giddy pep in his step on Saturday morning for the commute home to his Leamington Spa-based family following the latest Friday night high jinx with Pro D2 upstarts Provence.

The club, formed in 1970 and professional since 2003, has never reached the play-offs in the second-tier league but their last-gasp success over Brive, added to the previous week’s similarly late, late win at Beziers, has them sitting pretty on top of the table with 18 of their 30 regular season games played.

For Gopperth – who turns 41 next June – the unexpected cross-Channel adventure has been invigorating after a dozen seasons in England and two more in Ireland since his 2009 arrival from the Blues following his formative career years at the Hurricanes.

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“A breath of fresh air” was how the New Zealander described his year in Provence so far, chilling on his sofa on Thursday evening when RugbyPass connected with him via Zoom. Every few minutes in the half-hour catch-up, Gopperth had to change the angle of his screen, such was the glare created by the winter sun as he talked from the Mediterranean base. How enviable.

“What are we, end of January, it’s 20 degrees here, blue sky, we’re doing captain’s run today in singlets and shorts and been walking around town with shorts and t-shirts on; that just gives me a new lease of life. South of France, it’s just a different place.

“With the rugby, it’s been exciting. This club is very, very new. There are only four or five centurions that have ever come through this club. It has only been professional not long but never in the top six in the Pro D2 and we are having a good season at the moment. Hopefully, we can make the top six and get ourselves an opportunity for the playoffs.

“Rugby in the UK and Ireland is very structured. Guys understand the structure and where they need to be in certain plays whereas in France it’s very unstructured. As they say, ‘Joie, joie’. It’s taken me a bit to get used to being in a very structured environment for so many years, but it’s a breath of fresh air. We’ll run it from our own goal line. It’s just how it is, that French mentality, I really enjoy it. It’s like a cross between Super Rugby and English rugby, a bit of a hybrid. It has given me a new lease of life.

“Probably the intensity is not as high because some of the skill set is just slightly lower than those top, top tiers. The intensity is slightly lower but it is still very physical. There are lots and lots of big boys, lots of Fijians in the Pro D2 who hit hard, who run fast, and the make-up of the French rugby here is your four and five, your locks, are the biggest men you can find in the world and then your back-rowers, your jumpers, your lineout callers, there are some big, big men,” he explained, going on to reference the enthusiastic vibe surrounding the game where he lives.

“The World Cup being here has just strengthened the club scene. We are seeing a lot more fan engagement, especially around this area, around Aix. That is because we are doing well and because the World Cup was here, just the whole publicity and excitement. France are playing here (in Marseille versus Ireland) next Friday, the U20s are also playing here (in Provence), so a lot is going on and people really seem to be buying into it.”

Why did Gopperth buy into it himself, swapping the cold of the English midlands at this time of the year for the warmth of Aix-en-Provence, the city located about 35kms north of Marseille? “Getting into the back end of my career I was looking to do something different,” he explained.

“I’d been in the Premiership for a long time, been in the UK for a long time. I always looked at France and had loads of opportunities to go but it just didn’t quite fit and then this opportunity came up and I thought, ‘Why not?’ Teimana Harrison, who was here, spoke very highly of the place.

“He said, ‘You’ll love it; it’s a lot different than the UK but it’s a breath of fresh air, they are a very ambitious club and they want to go places’. It’s been very evident from the outset. I have seen they are very ambitious, they want to succeed and they want to be one of the top clubs, not just in the south of France but the whole of France, and we are putting stepping stones to achieve those goals.

“I have been blown away by the quality of the Pro D2. It’s very, very strong on the field. Off the field, the crowds are amazing, the whole atmosphere. For some reason, France have got it. They have got it nailed on at the moment in rugby as a whole. Look at the crowds. They are always full, both Pro D2 and Top 14.

“What really helps here is Pro D2, we play on Thursday and Friday nights, it’s fully televised, and then Top 14 play Saturday, Sunday. So the second division is fully on TV, it’s accessible so it’s marketable, and then the top division will play Saturday, Sunday so you have got all the levels of rugby which creates great excitement, a great following.

“Every team we play, it’s stacked with internationals. Some of them might be second tier, third tier but they are packed with internationals, loads of guys that have played in the World Cup. And next year George North is coming here (to Provence), Courtney Lawes has been linked here, loads of other guys have been linked to Pro D2 teams and it is just going from strength to strength.”

While Gopperth has played an integral part in pushing the Mauricio Reggiardo-led Provence to the top of the table with a dozen wins and a pair of draws, he doesn’t know what the future holds for him yet. “Ah, we’ll see,” he teased with a smile when asked if an extension at Provence might be in the pipeline.

It’s an uncertainty he has grown used to the older he has gotten. “I have been on one year (contracts) the last five years, six years. It’s how it works. As soon as you get over 33, 34, most clubs do a one plus one plus one etc.

“That’s the toughest part as you get older. The security and not knowing, but most of the clubs I have been at have been really transparent. I’ll go and talk to them early and say, ‘Hey, what’s the situation, how are you looking for me for next season?’

“If they say we’re looking to go a different path or whatever, it gives me four, five, six months to actually really go hard, okay what am I doing next, what businesses do I want to jump into, what connections have I got and really put some stepping stones into going. I have been doing that the last few years and it just keeps turning around, I’ll play one more year, play one more year but that time [retirement] is coming.

“I have done all my coaching certificates, it’s something I like but we’ll see. Also, I am really looking forward to working in maybe something totally different. I have been in contact with loads of different businesses to see what they do, more the business development and just helping people, putting my perspective on different businesses would be something that I’d like to get into but who knows where I’ll go.”

Gopperth’s top-end longevity is fascinating. Only the MLR-based Ma’a Nonu and Matt Giteau, who turn 42 in May and September respectively, have the jump on him in terms of playing professional rugby at such a grand age. What’s the secret elixir? “I don’t know, maybe I drank too much cow’s milk when I was a young fella milking the cows and it’s given me the strength,” he quipped.

“No, I think it is just having a balanced life on and off the field but more so it’s probably just the hunger to compete. I have got a competitive edge that I always want to improve. Age is not a thing for me. I never think of my age, I just want to improve. I suppose all rugby players, we’re a little bit selfish in a way and I am really hungry to be the best I can be. You have got to make a lot of sacrifices.

“We play this game because we love it. I’m in my what, 23rd year of professional rugby, and when I started as a young fella I would never have thought of that. Now I have got that little burden of another little challenge where I think I need 10 more games to make 500 professional games. I have got that little challenge to make sure I try and get that. That would be something special.”

Often, putting the feet up and downsizing the training load is the prescription to help veteran players thrive. Not Gopperth. “I don’t miss a minute of training, don’t miss a minute. I think there is only me and the full-back Adrien Lapegue who have played most minutes out of everyone this year so still sticking along,” he said before mentioning some other vital statistics.

“I have never been a massive bench press. I suppose in my heyday I might have been 140 and these days I am about 130, 125, so it hasn’t dropped off that much. The speed over the 10 has probably dropped a tiny bit but not much. I always pride myself on being a hard worker and that hard-working base bulletproofs my body to be able to continue playing 80 minutes every week.

“I might not have the top, top speed as I did as a young fella but if I do my job right to pass it to the young flyers I should be alright. I have never tried to get out of training. Being a bit older you see some guys get, ‘Okay don’t do this session, don’t do that session’.

“I have been one of those players I say to the trainers I want to do every session, I will tell you if I need a rest but don’t pull me out for a reason of pulling me out because I find if I train every day I am telling my own self and my body that I good to do and also telling the team that I’m still here and I’m still fighting.

“My goal kicking is my super strength but within the play, game understanding and helping people around me. I love helping people around me with my communication and identifying space and if I can do that to help others to get in the best position that is what I get satisfaction in.

“I get satisfaction in seeing others succeed and the team succeed if I can help put those pieces into place during a match and see the space. But not just identifying the space, being able to move the ball into that space, that is what I am about and now I am getting a bit older I like to help people off the field, help some of the younger guys improve to see the game a different way. It’s good fun.”

Less amusing is the sacrifice involved in playing in France. Gopperth made the move without his family, wife Sarah and their teenagers Weston and Bayley, which was why he was flying to London on Saturday from Marseille and taking the train to Leamington Spa.

“The way of life (in Provence), it’s very easy to get caught in the wrong ways. There is beautiful wine around here, there are so many beautiful restaurants and the ocean is 20 minutes away from where I am. It’s beautiful, a very nice place to live. The people are very friendly so it’s good. It’s really enjoyable but it’s tough with the family still in the UK, that’s probably the hardest part but I try and get back as much as I can.”

Not regularly seeing his son playing his youth rugby is especially difficult. “He plays for Old Leamingtonians. He’s a good little player, a hard little fella. He has got a bit more speed than I have, he probably gets it from his mum as she used to be an athlete, but he really enjoys it.

“Being over here I miss a lot of his games but when I get back to see him play it’s really fulfilling just to see the smile on his face knowing that is what I used to do as a kid. He loves it, which is cool. He’ll probably be a 10 or a 15, he likes kicking. He has got a good base of skills but he tackles his heart out. He’ll be in the backs somewhere, I’m not letting him anywhere near the forwards. Even if he is 120kilos, he’s in the backs!”

Golf helps Gopperth when it comes to occupying his free time when alone in France. “My missus won’t like me saying that but I have got to keep busy, I don’t want to sit around at home by myself. There are only so many coffees and outings you can do with the other boys but there is a couple of us that play golf and there is a really nice golf course not far down the road. I’m there most days, chipping away and having a few rounds. It’s the middle of winter and you can play in your shorts. There is no excuse not to improve your golf game over here.”

It was the switch to Wasps from Leinster in 2015 that led to the Gopperths making Leamington Spa their UK home. The out-half spent seven seasons with the Coventry-based club and he was just a few months into his single season at Leicester when it abruptly collapsed, his old teammates being made unemployed and scrambling to find alternatives. The club’s resurrection has yet to happen.

“It’s really sad, 156 years of history just gone down the drain. All those really fine moments,” said Gopperth somberly. “You are always scrolling through things, things pop up on your social media and it’s about your memories and you see loads of photos in the Wasps kit and all the memories come back and it’s just not there.

“For all the players that played there, I think they will be thinking exactly the same and I really hope that they come back and start fresh and sort of get back into the top tier of European rugby because Wasps is a huge name and I loved everything about what they did, the way that they played, they people – it’s always about the people at Wasps because they moved around, they never really had a home.

“It was always about the people and just so many great people that have been through the club. It is really sad. I always check up on other teams I have been involved with, how they are getting on and that is the one that is missing.”


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