New Year, new opportunity for Leinster’s Jamison Gibson-Park

When the clock passes midnight on New Year’s Eve, Jamison Gibson-Park will step a little closer to his dream.

2019 is the date he’s had in mind since first agreeing to join Leinster from the Hurricanes in 2016 — it being the year he would become eligible for Ireland.

It seemed a long way off then, but now he’s in the final furlongs just six months from being involved in Joe Schmidt’s farewell tour.

Yet, there’s much to do to make sure that he can ever take advantage of that eligibility.

Conor Murray is the world’s outstanding scrum-half, and then there’s Luke McGrath, Leinster’s first choice No 9.

In Galway, Kieran Marmion remains high in Schmidt’s plans, while John Cooney is enjoying a fine spell in Ulster since moving north last summer.

When Gibson-Park was weighing up a move to Dublin, Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss were retired or retiring, while McGrath had started only five games in the previous four seasons.

Since then, though, McGrath has started 45 compared to Gibson-Park’s 27, and just three of the latter’s starts have come in Europe.

“I was probably a small bit naïve coming over here thinking I was going to breeze in straight away and it took me a good while to find my feet,” he said. “Obviously, the first season I was sort of feeling it out but it’s a whole lot different now, I feel comfortable in this environment, having my say, that kind of thing. I’ve improved that side of things I think.”

Gibson-Park says it’s “pretty clear” Luke McGrath is the first-choice at the minute, so what remains is for the Kiwi-born player to heap whatever pressure he can in training and on those times he gets to start.

He should start against Connacht this weekend, and again when Ulster visit the RDS in early January.

“My focus has to be spot-on because obviously I’m not playing every week,” he said. “It’s good to get a bit of a ball rolling, especially in a ball-playing position, I feel it’s better when you get a roll-on with a number of games together. It’s hard to be bouncing in and out but that’s the nature of what I’ve had to for the last wee while. It can be challenging at times, no doubt, but it’s the nature of the beast, you just have to roll on and get on with it.” Gibson-Park became too familiar with life on the bench in New Zealand, where All Blacks scrum-half TJ Perenara owned the No 9 shirt.

“I didn’t start a match that whole [last] season, so I was coming off the bench. You just go through the motions, that is pretty what it felt like,” he said. “Coming here starting games makes it a whole lot different. There are international blocks when you have to step up and lead a bit more.”

Upping sticks to the other side of the world is not as easy as some might have you think, and Gibson-Park has been through some challenging times before finally feeling at ‘home’.

“Family has a lot to do with that, my missus and the little one have settled really well, probably better than I have,” he said.

“They’ve got mates all around and that makes things easier on me. It means that I can focus on the day-to-day (rugby).

“It feels pretty much like home now. I haven’t been back to New Zealand since I got here just over two years ago.

“I struggled a little bit but I’ve had family come through and that sort of thing which makes it a small bit easier.

“That’s probably the biggest thing, as long as they’re comfortable (I’m comfortable).”

The 26-year-old was surprised by the ‘foreigner’ rule that kept him, James Lowe or Scott Fardy out of the Leinster match-day 23, but that will no longer be an issue from next June when Gibson Park turns green.

It may look a big ask to get past Murray, Marmion or even McGrath – but he’s up for the challenge.

“They look as though they’re pretty set in those positions but you never know what could happen over the next while,” he said.

“As I’d always say, the focus is on what’s going on here, try to get the 9 jersey for Leinster first.

“I’m absolutely ambitious though, it’s what we’re here for, to play at the highest level, it’s something I’ve always aspired to do.”

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