Jimmy Goppert cool about staying afloat
Surfing the North Sea keeps Newcastle kicker chilled as he sets about helping his club avoid relegation today, he tells Simon Turnbull
Jimmy Gopperth breezes into one of the West Stand hospitality boxes overlooking the green sward of Kingston Park with a cheery "How you doin'?" He is wearing his Newcastle Falcons No 10 training top and a pair of bright-blue beach shorts.
Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys had been on television the night before, riding waves on some sun-kissed Californian stretch of sand, singing "Surfin' USA". For the outside-half who will be attempting to keep Newcastle's heads above water in their Aviva Premiership relegation decider against Wasps at Adams Park this afternoon, it is more a case of Surfin' Tyne and Wear.
"I was out with my board just last night," Gopperth says. "I like to go up around Blyth, Seaton Sluice. With all the stuff coming out of the rivers, I just close my mouth – otherwise I'd end up in hospital."
Across in the corner of the hospitality box there is a glass cabinet displaying the Tetley's Bitter Cup and one of the Premiership Golden Boot trophies won by Jonny Wilkinson. In the three seasons Gopperth has spent fighting against the relegation tide as Wilkinson's replacement in the No 10 shirt for the Falcons, the former Junior All Black has twice landed the top-flight prize for top points-scorer; with 80 minutes of the 2011-12 campaign remaining, the New Plymouth native stands third behind Tom Homer of London Irish and Sale's Nick Macleod on 217 points.
Like the golden boy whose dramatic drop goal won the 2003 World Cup final for England, the 28-year-old Gopperth has a Midas touch with the boot. Unlike Wilkinson – Wilkinson in his prime, certainly – he does not carry the worries of the world upon his shoulders. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Wilkinson was such a highly strung individual, consumed by a fear of failure and manacled to a slavish work ethic, that he once confessed: "My perspective on life at the time of the 2003 Rugby World Cup robbed me of my ability to enjoy the moment." Gopperth, patently, enjoys the moment – every moment – to the full.
Asked if there might be an insurance clause in his contract stipulating no surfing, he shrugs his shoulders and says, chuckling: "I don't know." Clearly, there is more value in keeping such a key man in his naturally chilled state ahead of the kind of crunch match the Falcons face in High Wycombe today.
"Yeah, the surfing gets my mind away from rugby," Gopperth says. "It keeps my body nice and loose and it's good for recovery too. The sea's about nine degrees at the moment, so it's not the warmest. I surfed back home in Taranaki. You get cold there but not as cold as here."
There has been many a time this season when it seemed certain that Newcastle, despite the prolific place-kicking of their Kiwi fly-half, would end up being left out in the Premiership cold. By the first weekend in January, they had suffered 10 defeats and won just twice.
Since Gary Gold, the former London Irish and Springboks coach, arrived as director of rugby, though, to take over the reins from Alan Tait, there has been a raging against the dying of the light. With two wins and a draw in their last five matches, Newcastle have reached denouement day with a chink of hope.
Their fate is in their own hands, but they have a lot to do if they are to keep hold of it. Newcastle, who have named an unchanged XV for the final-day fixture, stand 12th and bottom, four points behind Wasps: to overtake their hosts they need either to win by 24 points or to triumph with a four-try bonus point, while simultaneously denying Wasps a losing bonus point.
The omens are not promising. Their highest winning margin in the Premiership this season is nine points. And they last scored four tries in league action back in October 2010, in a 27-16 win at Bath.
Still, with their long-term future secure thanks to the backing of local businessman Semore Kurdi, Gopperth maintains: "We're pretty relaxed. The bonus about it is that whichever league we end up playing in next season, the club is in great shape now.
"With Dean Richards coming in as director of rugby next season and Semore Kurdi backing us, this club is going places. There's a buzz of excitement going around the place at the moment.
"We're massive underdogs going down to Wasps and we can just go out and play rugby. The pressure's off us. The last thing we need to do is worry – 'Shit, we need to score four tries, win by 24 points.'
"If we go down there and just enjoy ourselves, with a smile on our faces, and do exactly what we need to do, the performance and the score will take care of themselves."
It was different on the final day of last season. Gopperth and his team-mates headed down to Bath in the box seat in the survival stakes. With a one-point advantage over Leeds, who were away to Northampton, plus a superior points difference, they could afford to lose – so long as Leeds failed to gain more than a single bonus point.
The Falcons clung on by the skin of their claws. They were thumped 42-12. Leeds gained a losing bonus point, falling to a 31-24 defeat after leading 24-3. They came within an ace of a last-minute try bonus point that would have relegated Newcastle instead.
"We started that game OK but as soon as it came over the PA system that Leeds were 24-3 up everything just hit the fan," Gopperth recalls. "We didn't know how to cope with the pressure. We were lucky Leeds fell short by a couple of inches."
Had it not been for the thickness of Tom Varndell's hand, the Falcons would have been travelling to Wycombe today needing "only" a straight win, without any extras. The Wasps winger prevented Sam Vesty from denying his side a bonus point a fortnight ago, after the Bath midfielder had indulged in some premature celebrating as he crossed the try-line at the Rec.
"It's just one of those things in rugby," Gopperth says. "You've got to laugh about it. From our point of view, there's so many things that have gone against us and that's another one to add to the collection.
"We've been through a lot of shit this season but we've got such a good group of guys that we haven't let it rattle us too much. The way Gary and his coaching team have led us these last few months has been absolutely superb. It's just a shame that we haven't got another half-season to go."
Gold – who has been assisted on Tyneside by John Wells and Mike Ford, two of Martin Johnson's lieutenants in the old England regime – was always going to be a stopgap appointment at Kingston Park. Richards arrives in mid-August to pick up the threads of his career in the wake of his three-year "Bloodgate" ban.
The former England No 8 will have the vast bulk of a Premiership squad to work with, whichever league Newcastle happen to be in, Gopperth and the majority of his colleagues having committed themselves to the club.
The Falcons could still be top-flighters even if they finish bottom today. Of the four clubs involved in the Championship play-offs, only Bristol meet the entry criteria for the Premiership.
Even if they have to bite the bullet of a season in the second tier, which they last occupied in 1997, Newcastle's chances of coming back stronger will be all the brighter with Gopperth and his old-style, almost toe-end, place-kicking style still in tow.
"My dad built me a pair of posts in the cow paddock on the family farm and I learnt to kick there," he says. "When I went down to Wellington to play for the Hurricanes I changed my style because of the wind there. I hit the ball a bit lower, sort of punching it into the wind. You get a lot more power with a low trajectory."
The idiosyncratic technique has proven devilishly effective since Gopperth moved from the Blues in Auckland to the Falcons in Newcastle in the summer of 2009.
He has racked up 666 points in three seasons in the English Premiership: Wilkinson scored 1,489 points in 12 seasons at Newcastle. If Gopperth ends up equalling that tally, it will be for the want of trying.
Wilkinson once calculated that he took 1,000 practice kicks in a typical week. As for his successor, the Newcastle beach boy confesses: "I may hit about 10 balls a week. I hit three yesterday and I was happy, so that did me.
"I don't like to practise too much. When you get something that works, you don't want to fiddle with it."
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