We’re just over 10 years removed from Ronan O’Gara’s famous swipe at the English Premiership, but the debate on the relative merits of that league and the PRO12 will zoom back into focus on Saturday when the respective league leaders clash in a Champions Cup quarter-final in Dublin.
It was in October of 2006 when, in an interview with the Guardian, O’Gara spoke about how he had to watch Premiership games with the sound turned down, such was the level of hyperbole emanating from the mouths of Sky’s match commentators. There was much more besides, but that was the killer line.
Sky don’t screen the Premiership anymore, and the players and even the names of the respective tournaments have changed, but the question as to which competition is the better has waxed and waned over the years without any agreement coalescing.
Few are better equipped to make comparisons than Jimmy Gopperth. A mainstay with Leinster for two seasons, he sandwiched that stint with time at Newcastle Falcons and his current posting in Wasps with Coventry, and there was no sitting on the fence when he compared and contrasted his stints on either side of the Irish Sea.
“The Premiership on the whole is a lot stronger than the PRO12,” said the experienced Kiwi ahead of Wasps meeting with his old club.
“It’s like Leinster-Munster every single week. There’s no let-up. Even the bottom teams will give you a run for your money coming here. It’s a lot more attritional over here and the English union obviously don’t have the control over the players like the union does in Ireland, so you can have internationals playing every single week. So, it is a very good competition and getting stronger and stronger.
“The skill levels are getting a lot better, because a lot of teams now have outstanding pitches. We are seeing [more] artificial ones, but even with the grass ones, there are no mud pitches anymore. It has really improved skill levels.”
There is no bolshiness in his voice, as he delivers the verdict. Gopperth’s approachability and likeability have made him a popular player in the dressing-room and with the media, but his views add an intriguing sub-plot to an already fascinating encounter.
His own time in Dublin was overshadowed by criticisms of the team’s style under Matt O’Connor and the debate over whether he or Ian Madigan should start at 10 after Jonathan Sexton’s switch to Racing 92, but the New Zealander looks back on his time there fondly.
A PRO12 winner in his first season, he was on a team that took champions Toulon to extra-time in a Champions Cup semi-final in Marseille, where defeat was sealed when an ambitious Madigan pass was intercepted for a try by Bryan Habana.
This will be the third time he faces his old mates. Gopperth was part of the Wasps side that swarmed Leinster twice in last year’s pool stages, but he knew even then from his time in Ireland that the province had a posse of young talent ready to make the step up. No prizes for guessing his standout.
“I always thought Tadhg Furlong was going to go on to greatness. He was a young fella coming through the academy and he was strong as an ox. He’s got that farmer’s strength about him, but it was more than that. It was an attitude. It was the way he sees himself. Very humble guy, a very grounded guy.
“He has come on in leaps and bounds. He was outstanding in the Six Nations and he has more or less booked his plane ticket to New Zealand in the summer with the Lions. I am really happy for Tadhg. He’s a bloody good bloke and it’s just good to see a young guy from the countryside doing really, really well.”
Furlong’s is the sort of talent that probably would have broken through regardless, but his pathway was cleared considerably by the decision of Marty Moore to follow Gopperth and Brendan Macken in signing for the two-time Heineken Cup champions.
Moore said recently that his fitness has improved immeasurably. Gopperth has seen how the tighthead has been motoring through the hour-mark, when his type normally get the shepherd’s hooks, and coach Dai Young is among those pleasantly surprised by his fitness levels.
“Marty has fitted in really well with us,” said Gopperth. “He had a couple of injuries early, but he shrugged them off and he’s been getting a lot of game time. He adds a lot around the field and with his scrummaging and he has really opened up as a person.
“He has really embraced the culture over here and I suppose getting out of his comfort zone has really helped him and I don’t think it will be too long before he is back in a green jersey as well. He is doing an excellent job for us.”
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