Jamison Gibson-Park - the one that got away, and the one that got away
"Yeah, he's a brilliant player, isn't he?"
Jamison Gibson-Park and Tawera Kerr-Barlow - two Kiwi scrum-halves that have made a career, and life, for themselves in Europe - are coming up against each other again at Aviva Stadium.
Having traded Super Rugby for the European club game, both are up there with Antoine Dupont as the top No.9s in Europe. We felt it was inevitable to bring up Kerr-Barlow when he got him to sit down for a chat, so just plunged ahead and got the question out there first.
"Tawrea has forged a pretty awesome career, over a good number of years now. He's become a real mainstay in that La Rochelle team. He's been playing awesome. Sp hopefully we get a chance to face off, as he missed last year's final through injury. It'd be awesome to come up against him."
Sure enough, when Ronan O'Gara and Leo Cullen named their respective XVs for the final, Kerr-Barlow and Gibson-Park got the 9 jerseys. Before we return to the Champions Cup final, though, we swung through Gibson-Park's upbringing in New Zealand, making a name for himself in Ireland and those that helped shape his journey.
'They take laid-back to a whole new level'
As we are talking, it is hard to miss a big topographical map of Gisborne, behind Jamison Gibson-Park. A reminder of his native New Zealand, and an opening to enquire about life growing up on Great Barrier Island.
"It's pretty awesome, unique," he says. "It's a very small, kind of tight knit community.
"It's a pretty big island itself, like land-mass wise. But, in terms of population it is very small. Everyone knows each other and that was kind of the way I was brought up, you know - kind of a real laid back mindset, which I probably has shaped me to be the person I am today.
"Like, everyone's always late and all that kind of stuff. Now, that's not me as a professional. I got better at that. But, that's the island way of life and that was how I was brought up. It shaped me a lot and sport was massive for me. I'd go to school every day then I'd be straight out on a pitch with a ball. We just had to be home before dark.
"We'd be up to all that kind of stuff, you know? Surfing and hunting, fishing, diving. The old man would have been big into his diving. And so, me and my brothers would have been scuba diving, pretty early on."
When Gibson-Park moved to Gisborne, playing for the boys high school there, he was picked up early as a decent prospect before getting picked up by National Provincial Championship side, Taranaki. Within another year he was playing for Auckland Blues in Super Rugby.
He would move on to play a year with the Hurricanes, in Wellington, and turn out eight times for the Maori All Blacks. When it came to Test side selection, he was losing out to the likes of Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber. Leinster were alerted to his potential availability and, back then, there was only three years needed to satisfy residency rules.
By August 2019, Gibson-Park was eligible to play Test rugby for Ireland but Joe Schmidt opted not to jump him ahead of others in the World Cup queue. One wonders if that conservative decision is something Schmidt now regrets.
La Rochelle 'very good at the dark arts'
Jamison Gibson-Park was 28-years-old, had 97 Leinster appearances to his name and was into his fifth season at the province before he made his Ireland debut. Andy Farrell has capped him 26 times [19 starts] since October 2020, telling you all you need to know of his importance to Ireland.
He is known for his laid-back demeanour and the speed he injects into his team's attacking play. When he is full go, he is hard to contain.
He will never be that barking, yapping No.9, though.
"I wouldn't be massively vocal," he says. "At times, obviously, when it is needed I might pipe up. I wouldn't be too loud, I suppose, compared to guys like Craig Casey and Aaron Smith. Those guys are pretty massive out there. You hear them over ref mic, the whole time. That's not my style really.
"There are many ways of communicating with people, even during breaks in play. In phase play, though, I wouldn't be that vocal."
As for that ramped-up tempo, it is something La Rochelle know all about. Like last year's final, the French side will be doing all they can to slow Leinster down at the breakdown, and in general play.
"I don't have to clean many rucks, thankfully," he remarks, "so, it'll be the other boys dealing with it. But, yeah, I think we all know that it's coming around the corner again.
"We'll be doing our best to do as much prep on it but they are very tricky to deal with and very good at slowing sides down. Very good at the dark arts."
Winning for Ireland, on New Zealand soil
Earlier this season, James Lowe reflected that beating New Zealand - the country of his birth - in an Ireland jersey was right up there with a Grand Slam when it came to all-time achievements.
"Yeah, that would definitely rank highly," Jamison Gibson-Park says. "The win in my first one against them in the Aviva, as well, in November 2021. That was pretty massive... a pretty awesome and kind of an emotional day. Right up there, in terms of rugby memories, along with that Grand Slam.
"That was unbelievably special. I know I only played the last couple of games but it was pretty incredible to do that in the Aviva in front of such a special crowd, and the moments after the game, with no-one left the stadium. It was brilliant and, certainly memories you won't ever forget."
For many Kiwis, watching Gibson-Park tearing them to shreds in 2021 and again in 2022, the scrumhalf was one that got away, under everyone's noses.
Informed of how Paul O'Connell, a 2009 Grand Slam winner and how Ireland's forwards coach, stood by himself observing the players celebrating their 2023 Grand Slam win. Big smile on his face, too.
"Yeah, kind of soaking it up," he nods. "I think that's probably something you get better with, with age. Kind of being able to take a step back and look at really what's going.
"When you're young, you just get caught up in the moment. Stu [Lancaster] played us some clips of Kevin Sinfield, when he won big games. Kevin was saying the same thing, like, as he got on, he got more thrills out of just sitting back and watching everyone else enjoy the moment."
"My eldest daughter, Isabella is old enough now to kind of understand what's going on," he adds. "She really enjoys being able to get out there on the pitch and enjoy it. Those are like moments to savour."
Jamison Gibson-Park on his No.1 fan
By now, Leinster fans have just about got their heads around Johnny Sexton definitely, certainly, 100% not making a miracle comeback for the Champions Cup final.
Ross Byrne is the man Jamison Gibson-Park start together with in that half-backs unit. Byrne has effectively been the Leinster No.10 all season. This time around, he's getting the big-time final start and has been superb and serene in the knock-out stages.
"For me, it hasn't changed massively," says Gibson-Park. "Ross has been doing it for a long time for Leinster. In terms of leading weeks and all that kind of stuff, he's brilliant. You're just saw it and seen it more now in big games that he's been involved in. He's just got more of a crack at it, and everyone has seen how good he is."
Gibson-Park says Sexton, Leinster's injured captain and long-time talisman, has been 'pretty keen to give a bit of space' to the active squad members. "Obviously," he adds, "if he feels he needs to, he'll chip in."
The scrumhalf perks up when he mentions that his folks will be paying him a visit in Ireland, later this year. This weekend, though, the JGP fan-club will be tuning in from New Zealand.
"There's a tight-knit little crew - kind of my close friends and obviously my family - that would be in touch regularly," he tells us.
"My old man and my nana watch every game. It doesn't matter what time it's on, they'll be up.
"My nana is 70 this year. She's been my number one fan since day one, as you can imagine. Typical with the old nanas!"
Last year's Champions Cup final was one that got away from Leinster at the death. It was a tough watch for Leinster fans, watching from all over the world, and inside Stade Velodrome.
It will be 4:45am, Sunday morning, in New Zealand when Gibson-Park's family and friends are up with the early risers to see if he can cap off an impressive 12-month stretch with that Champions Cup cherry.
WATCH HOUSE OF RUGBY'S FINAL PREVIEW
- Leinster vs. La Rochelle: All the talking points, biggest moments and player ratings
- 'If you don't get better, you get beaten' - Ronan O'Gara ready to scale another mountain
- Caelan Doris, Neve Jones and Jack Crowley win big at Rugby Players Ireland awards ceremony
- Johnny Sexton's most cherished jersey swap shows how seriously he takes his rugby
- Jack Conan and Dan Sheehan star as Leinster thump Toulouse to set up dream final