Slow burner Jamison Gibson-Park now at the top of his game

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It’s hard to truly believe that Jamison Gibson-Park has spent most of his career as an understudy, or that in April 2018 many were seriously questioning his selection for Leinster’s Champions Cup semi-final , or even that last summer Conor Murray was briefly captain of the British and Irish Lions.

But here Gibson-Park has, at 30, supplanted Ireland’s greatest scrum-half as Ireland’s first-choice number nine and become a hub in its own right for the high-paced, ball-and-play rugby brand. in hand of this Irish team.

Even the coach who believed in Gibson-Park the most is a little taken aback. Colin Cooper was Gibson-Park’s first head coach in professional play with Taranaki for three seasons, also bringing him to the New Zealand Maori team at the age of 21 for three seasons, and followed up close the player’s slow career trajectory through the Blues, Hurricanes, Leinster and now Ireland.

Turns out the boy was born to run with a rugby ball.

This week, Cooper told The Irish Times about a training drill from around 2012 which gives insight into the scrum-half’s innate speed and stamina.

“His conditioning is huge. He can run a 19/20 ‘yo-yo’ (22-meter shuttle sprints) which are now called broncos. If you get under 16, you’re too slow. Usually your frontrowers have about 16, and your fullbacks and fast boys are coming in at 18, some maybe 19. He recorded a 20.2 with us. I had two in the 20s, and he was one of them. He had a huge base of conditioning. He’s also really fast and so his speed times were right there – he had super speed times.

“Great Future”

Gibson-Park hails from the Great Barrier Island, northeast of Auckland, which at the time had a population of less than 800, before moving to Gisborne on mainland New Zealand when he was 10 years old and attend Gisborne Boys’ High School. In his senior year, he was selected for the New Zealand secondary schools team.

“Gisborne Boys’ High is on the east coast and Taranaki is on the west side of the north island, but our union had a relationship with the school there and we actually got quite a bit from Gisborne,” Cooper said, also citing the future. Scottish eight Blade Thompson and Charlie Ngatai, once crowned All Blacks, entered Taranaki academy with Gibson-Park.

“At a young age he had a great future, but what he couldn’t do was questionable kicks. And I said to him: “Look, if you want to climb as a professional player, you have to box”.

“And he’s like, ‘Coops, I wasn’t taught to kick. I was just taught to run. I could understand why they didn’t want him kicking because he was such an athlete.

“But I insisted that if he was going to be successful at a professional level, he was going to have to box with both feet, especially the contestable kick and the punt kick. I was lucky enough to have him straight out of high school training him with this, so to see him come to fruition now is pretty special to watch.

“Really, that’s all he needed to do, besides making his passing a bit more accurate, especially from left to right and from the bridge, and he worked on that too.”

Gibson-Park played 28 NPC and ITM Cup games for Taranaki in three seasons under Cooper.

“The combination of Blade Thompson at eight and Jamo at nine cut club rugby to pieces at Taranaki. In 2014 we won the NPC Premiership (ITM Cup) for the first time in our history on our home ground and he played a big part in that.

Gibson-Park was signed by John Kirwan for the Auckland Blues in 2013. During his first Super Rugby campaign, Gibson-Park was understudy for Piri Weepu. Injuries plagued much of his second season and he was Jimmy Cowan’s second-choice in 2015, despite starting six of his 14 appearances.

Gibson-Park moved to the Hurricanes in Wellington but his 13 appearances, including in the knockout wins over the Sharks, Chiefs and Lions that won the Hurricanes their first Super Rugby title, replaced TJ Perenara.

“I kept telling him to be patient. ‘Your time will come. Keep working hard.’ And one day he told me he was going to Leinster. We wished him good luck. I thought it was good for him and his family because at that time he had a partner.

“But I didn’t expect him to play for Ireland or stay in Ireland for so long. It just blew our minds. All of his fans, friends and people who know him are not surprised because of his work ethic to get there. But I’m surprised he knocked out Conor Murray, who in New Zealand is a big name and is the debatable best kicker in the world.

“The other thing he had to work on was his voice, because he’s quiet and shy. From his background he’s respectful, very courteous but underneath it all he has a little larrikin in him. When we won the Premiership first time I had to speak with the media and the next minute I got soaked in. He and the prop poured a barrel of water on me.

“But he is a special child. I’m so proud of him. We all are, not just in Taranaki but in this country. I can’t speak enough of him as a player and a person.

When Gibson-Park showed up for Leinster he had started seven Super Rugby games and been a substitute in 33. Yet at the start he was still compiling his share of number ’21’ shirts.

In his second season, despite Leinster’s three-for-two dilemma between James Lowe, Scott Fardy and Gibson-Park, when Luke McGrath was left out of their Champions Cup semi-final against the Scarlets, it was Lowe who was sacrificed despite Gibson- Park sinks with the ship in a home loss to Benetton the previous week. But Stuart Lancaster has expressed complete confidence in him. “There is no doubt in my mind that he is ready to play at this level.”

Gibson-Park didn’t miss a beat and Leinster won generously, and he came on as a substitute in the final against Racing 92.

There have only been seven European starts in total, but when Murray was sidelined and Gibson-Park started three successive games in the Six Nations last season, Lancaster noted a change in state of play. mind, going from always number two to number one.

Calm

“As a result, he plays with a lot more control and composure. He’s very down to earth, Jamo, he’s very humble and hardworking. To be an international player, first and foremost, you have to believe in yourself. .

Last November, Gibson-Park started against Japan and then the All Blacks when he came up against Perenara. Before the match, Perenara said: “He was one of the most gifted players I’ve ever played with – everything this guy touches often turns to gold.

“To see him come here and succeed at club and international level has been great. He really deserves his place. He’s a great guy. He plays the game in a really cool way. I enjoy the attacking game that he plays – and he puts his head in dark places on the defensive side of the ball.

Let’s not forget that Gibson-Park was just 24 when he arrived in Dublin in the summer of 2016. He arrived with Patti, now his fiancée, then his 18-month-old daughter Isabella, and they have since had a second daughter, Iris, in 2020. Her parents, Tara (whose paternal family, the Gibsons, were from Armagh) and Billy, visited her in 2018 but since his debut against Italy in October 2020, they could not travel.

That Bundee Aki has become such a hit is perhaps not that surprising. But Gibson-Park and James Lowe demonstrate that New Zealand players can thrive when exposed to training and playing environments, as well as big games, with Leinster and Ireland.

“Behind Perenara would he have succeeded? Probably not,” admits Cooper. “He had to move. And ‘Lowey’ is another one I had with the Maori All Blacks at the same time. I’m not surprised with him either.

“He’s got an exceptional left foot. He’s got a different make-up to Jamo. He’s quite confident and strong. But obviously that’s a good sign of Leinster’s environment and coaching, and Ireland as a country.

“Jamo seems to fit in there. Now he looks experienced and confident in himself as a number one for Ireland.

And also made for this less structured Irish team.

“Like I told you, he has conditioning that can play at that high pace,” Cooper added. “He will always be there, and he sees the space. For this great test in Paris, he saw this space, and he has great footwork.

Low mileage too. Of Gibson-Park’s 195 total representative games, only 87 have been starts. He recently signed another two-year extension with Leinster and with that innate conditioning he should still have a few years left in him.

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