THERE MIGHT NOT be a more vilified player in the history of Leinster rugby than Jimmy Gopperth at the moment.
The New Zealander is seen by fans of the province as the embodiment of Leinster’s regression in attack over the last few years and the end of every game brings the same reaction from many – put Ian Madigan to ten and Gopperth on the bench.
Leinster’s blunt offensive threat this season isn’t all down to Gopperth’s play at ten – any backline missing players like Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden would struggle – but there is no doubt that he hasn’t best utilised the players outside him.
His passing range isn’t as good as Madigan’s and while he is meant to be a better game-manager, his kicking isn’t always pin-point either.
Regardless, Gopperth starts at out-half against the Ospreys this evening with Madigan once again playing at inside centre, but with Gordon D’Arcy on the bench, a finishing 10-12-13 of Madigan, D’Arcy and McFadden is likely.
Matt O’Connor has put a lot of faith in Gopperth – which is one of the reasons Leinster fans have yet to warm to the Australian – and he backed his man to get back to top form but also acknowledged that his starting out-half has been underperforming recently.
“Jimmy hasn’t displayed the form or consistency that he demonstrated last year,” O’Connor said.
“Some of that is a team responsibility and some of that is an individual responsibility. Jimmy showed last year that when it was really important and it really mattered, he delivered the goods nine times out of ten.
Gopperth’s presence at ten in the Leinster side has moved Madigan to inside centre for the majority of the season. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland
“There is tremendous confidence in the group of Jimmy delivering that for us. Tomorrow night is another opportunity for him to do it for us.”
While their out-half might not be in top form, the back row is one area where Leinster have a number of guys playing solid rugby. Dominic Ryan’s national recognition was a just reward for his stellar start to the year while the emergence of Jack Conan gives Leinster another dynamic ball carrying option.
So at the moment Leinster have to pick a back row from Ryan, Conan, Jordi Murphy, Kevin McLaughlin, Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip while they also have Shane Jennings and Sean O’Brien to return from injury.
No surprise that O’Connor was unwilling to commit to a definitive starting trio.
“It is always off the back of merit and off the back of who is doing a job,” O’Connor said.
The reason Ryan and Conan were able to make such substantial leaps this season is due to the injuries to incumbents like Jennings, O’Brien, McLaughlin and Murphy.
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In a lot of squads, the return of senior players from injury is enough to bring them straight into the starting side regardless of how their replacements deputised but O’Connor says that while the international starters will be prioritised, he will also reward form when picking a back row chock-full of talent.
“You have to reward guys who have been performing at test level,” O’Connor said.
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