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October 16, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Jimmy Gopperth: Page 2006

SALIENT’S number one rugby enthusiast and sports journo Michael Oliver heads along to a Wellington Lions rugby practice to talk to backline lynchpin Jimmy Gopperth. He soon realises that although the rugby season is long the players are still driven by a love for the game.

RugbyWe begin our journey by flicking through a rather large, leather-bound book that’s interestingly titled, The Complete and Unabridged History of Every Single Thing Ever. Yeah, Even That! edited in part by God Inc. and T. B. Bang (a subsidiary of God Inc). While perusing this mountain of letters, words and punctuation, we cannot help but notice that this book is in fact a living, breathing document; we also note, with casual amusement, that this book appears to be lengthening at an alarming rate, so much so that any attempt to read its newly-placed words would result in dizziness not too dissimilar with benign positional vertigo.

A gentle sense of trepidation slinks through this book’s pages, as we find our fingers tracing their way to page 1870, and amongst the flurry of mid-to-late nineteenth century trials and tribulations, our eyes fall upon a tiny (but significant) piece of information: “Rugby made its first appearance inWellington in 1870, when a match was played between Nelson Club (founded two years earlier) and a team of Wellingtonian enthusiasts.”

Our interest has been teased; our eyes begin to sink deeper into the text.

The term “enthusiasts” carries with it some interesting connotations. In a time where rugby was but a fledgling melee where rules, regulations or indeed anything resembling structure was tactfully ignored, being an “enthusiast” required no more than for someone to saddle up to a game with the desire to participate. Anybody and everybody was welcome, regardless of whether they resided in Wellington. Wellington rugby history notes that this tenuous grasp on provincial affiliation often extended out over regional, and indeed, even international borders. If you were a Melbourne Rules player in 1870, for instance, you could also moonlight as a Wellington rugby “enthusiast”, and more often than not, you would. Even the drivers who transported the team to the games were often granted the title of “enthusiast” – the door was open to all. Not to cast disparities upon the dignity of primitive Wellingtonian rugby, but I dare say that even a dog could have found itself standing at firstfive for the Enthusiast XV without so much as an eyebrow being raised. (Imagine that – not only were Phar Lap and the pavlova stolen from us, but Air Bud could well have been too.)

As we flick through towards the back of the book, we learn that in the 27 years since New Zealand has enjoyed a nation-wide provincial rugby competition, Wellington has been either at the top (or close enough to the top) on the points table. And yet, the Union – one that casts its shadow way back to the nineteenth century with a team of rag-tag enthusiasts, lives solemnly in the knowledge that their trophy cabinet is achingly empty, and unlike the portrait of Dorian Gray, this visage isn’t getting any prettier. Perhaps, that is, until now.

It is fair to say that the 2006 Wellington Air New Zealand Cup side has enjoyed a mixed season, one that was simultaneously peppered with the sourness of defeat at the hands of North Harbour and Waikato, but yet, sweetened with victories over Auckland, and most recently, a star-studded Canterbury. Indeed, our beloved capital city is home to one of the most astonishingly Jekyll & Hyde sporting outfits in the entire country, and yet, there is something quite alluring brewing underneath it all, something that would require further explanation.

On Wednesday the 11th of October 2006, no less than two days out from a defining moment in Wellington rugby’s one hundred and thirty six year history, I find myself gazing fondly across the perfectly preened field at Rugby League Park in Newtown, as the Lions moved through their paces under the watchful eye of coach John Plumbtree. To describe these gentlemen as “enthusiasts” would be to do their enthusiasm a grave injustice (even the keenest canine first-five would’ve been forced to slink away, his tail between his legs at the sight of such zeal and zest); the gusto for rugby was palpable, and quite frankly, a little contagious.

I stood for an hour amongst a small huddle of rugby journalists, camera crews and commentators alike, watching thirty well-defined gentlemen, noble servants of the game of rugger, shirk away the idea that Wellington were a come-hithercome- thither team, in a flurry of intense, physical exercise. With their eyes cast deftly towards their semi-final with 2005 NPC champions Auckland, the squad barrowed into one another with almost cathartic pleasure, their voices bellowing around the small, sheltered park in a display of fervour better suited for boot camp than the footy field. Indeed, the usual crowd of rugby elites were there; the Umagas, the Collins, the Smiths, the Weepus, the So’oialos; but through the hurly burly of All Black mystique, one voice was noticeably and surprisingly louder than the rest – that of one Jimmy Gopperth.

Gopperth, Wellington’s first-five eighth of choice, another product of the Taranaki rugby factory – shimmied, passed and kicked across the sun-drenched field with remarkable grace and agility. Indeed, the 23 year-old that had dipped and dived between understudy and star during this year’s Super 14, was very much an active force during the morning session, and has been throughout the course of the season. One remembers fondly the electric pace upon which Gopperth’s Super 12 career began in 2005, and now in 2006, the voluble young first-five has seemed to have found himself a slice of the form that had fans and journalists alike writing down his name.

He finally cooled his jets, and quietly made his way off the training field. That’s perhaps the most striking thing about Jimmy Gopperth, and perhaps this Wellington side as a whole; one minute, they’re breathing fire and trawling their way through the landmine of a mid-morning sweatfest, and then the next minute they’re relaxed, coy and remarkably quiet (with the possible exception of Piri Weepu, who has the energy of a five-year old on a Fanta high).

While the Keith Quinns and the 3 News of the media circuit encircled coach Plumbtree and captain Umaga, I managedto slink my way over to Jimmy Gopperth, to catch a few pearls of wisdom from the conductor of the Wellington backline. There’s a charming sincerity to Mr. Gopperth; a palpable sense of calmness that radiates from him that makes for an easy conversation, in spite of the daunting prospect of semi-final pressure.

“Yeah, there is a lot of pressure building up,” he smirks. “If you lose, you’re gone.” Simple. There isn’t a ridiculous sense of complexity with Gopperth, and if he was feeling pressure, there was certainly no indication of it. In a country that finds itself so immersed in rugby-culture, one would have thought that the key witnesses that could be called upon by advocates against rugby saturation would be the players themselves, those entrenched by the demands of everyone with an opinion on the national game. Well, not so much with Jimmy. Squinting in the sunlight, and slightly amused by his rookie interviewer’s rather tenuous grasp of an electronic dictaphone, Gopperth was effortlessly philosophical:

“Obviously [rugby] is your job, but you never take it for granted. One day you could get an injury, and that finishes you. I love turning up every day, and it’s a new challenge every day.” He smiles again, and casts a glance upwards, “obviously, it’s the best job to have.” Pressure seems to be just a word to the Wellington first-five.

At this point, I overheard another journalist ask captain Umaga if he ever wondered whether he was playing for two teams, given Wellington’s bi-polar playing style. Jimmy must’ve sensed that my ears were tingling, for he too caught a quick glimpse at the huddle surrounding the former All Black captain, and indeed, seemed to be aware of my next question before I even asked it.

“Yeah, there’s a great environment here at the moment,” he grins. “We’ve worked all year on our surroundings and on our team, and the boys are really gelling together quite nicely and enjoying each other’s company. Obviously, you don’t want to get too anxious and psyched up about the game. I always try to stay nice and relaxed, and keep focused.”

The eager need for improvement was evident all around the Wellington team, perhaps, unsurprisingly, from the man who shouldered so much responsibility within the team itself:

“Obviously, you never play the perfect game,” he notes. “We’re always looking to improve. Obviously again, it’s another step up against Auckland [this weekend], but we’re ready for it.”

The simple philosophies are often the most valuable, and it would seem that Gopperth’s desire for focus and ease reaches beyond the touchlines:

“I’ve been living [in Wellington] since 2002, and I’m pretty fixed here,” he says. “I’ve got a fiancé, so I’m settled down.”

The Gopperth Grin appears again, and with words surely uttered by many a goal kicker before him, he says: “Yeah, I enjoy Wellington…when it’s not too windy.”

And as for the fuss and hassle surrounding the new competition itself?

“We let the fishheads deal with all that, and we’ll concentrate on what we have to do.”

Convolution is a word that holds little water within a rugby team, and as Jimmy jogged away, scooping a ball up with one hand and effortlessly sending it sky-high with that educated left-boot of his, one is perhaps reminded that the underlying ethos of those 1870 “enthusiasts” is still very much alive today. Today’s incarnation: a desire to play; a desire that moves fluently alongside a need to focus and improve. But above all else, there is a yearning for simplicity – an outlook that is as relevant today as it was back on page 1870.

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