It is remarkable to think that when Leinster beat Ulster 21-18 in that pulsating Champions Cup quarter-final four years ago almost to the day, Jamison Gibson-Park, then 27, was very much regarded as second-choice scrumhalf at Leinster and had yet to make his international debut.
He came on in the 58th minute that day but within eight minutes sustained bang to his head, failed his HIA and didn’t return.
“It seems a long time ago now,” he says with a wry smile, and it certainly must do.
Although he was then in his third season with Leinster, Gibson-Park was mostly used as an impact replacement, as in his Auckland Blues and Wellington Hurricanes days, . He had only started three Champions Cup games for Leinster, including final pool wins away to Montpellier and Wasps.
For his other start, some doubts had been aired about his ability to step into Luke McGrath’s shoes for the 2018 semi-final against Scarlets, which Leinster won 38-16 with Gibson-Park slotting in seamlessly.
Yet although he also played off the bench in the final against Racing 92 in Bilbao, he didn’t make the match-day squad for the semi-final against Toulouse or final against Saracens the following season. Even so, Andy Farrell brought Gibson-Park straight into the Irish squad for his Test debut in the rearranged Six Nations game against Italy the following October, and he has since made 25 Test appearances and become an integral figure in Ireland’s ascent to number one in the world, the series win in New Zealand and the Grand Slam.
In any event, Gibson-Park accepts that the titanic struggle with Ulster four seasons ago is the most relevant yardstick of what to expect tomorrow when the sides meet in their Champions Cup Last 16 tie at a sold-out Aviva Stadium (kick-off 5.30pm, live on RTÉ and BT Sport).
“It hasn’t been a big topic of discussion, but it is in the back of your head. They were fired up that day and played unbelievably well. They made things pretty tight and probably deserved to win the game in the end. So, they’ll definitely have looked at that and thought: ‘Why can’t we give it another proper rattle? Yeah, we’ll have to be on the ball.”
“It’s the same looking back at last season,” adds Gibson-Park with regard to Leinster coming up short in the Champions League final against La Rochelle and the URC semi-final against the Bulls, both of which he started.
“Nothing else matters now. We’ve got to this point, but you’ve got to park the rest of it. It’s all about knock-out footie. If you lose, you’re gone. So, you’ve got to be on it.”
Gibson-Park is one of 16 Leinster players who featured in the Grand Slam finale against England in the same stadium only a fortnight ago, and one of 18 players from the province overall. He admits that recalibrating is tough but adds: “We have experience of it now. Lads have come back and done it before.”
“It’s kind of second nature, to be honest,” he maintains, although, with the 2018 Grand Slam in mind, he admits: “When I wasn’t playing for Ireland I used to look at the lads coming back and thinking: ‘Holy hell, how do you do that? It must be so difficult’.
“But once you have the two sets of calls in your head, it’s not to say it’s seamless, but once you get a few training sessions it becomes just part of the process. There is a lot of stuff and a lot of new plays so there are certainly a few hours spent in the book.”
[ Gordon D’Arcy: Ulster need to iron out performance wrinkles if they are to stand a chance against Leinster ]
Besides, it’s not as if Gibson-Park has been overplayed of late. The hamstring injury he sustained on the eve of Ireland’s Six Nations opener away to Wales ultimately sidelined him until the penultimate game way to Scotland, when he made a telling contribution off the bench for the last half-hour.
To do that, and play the first 70 minutes plus against England, was a huge relief in many ways.
“I was pretty stoked with the whole process. I was obviously very disappointed to begin with but once I stuck to the rehab and I knew I was going to get back for Scotland I had my head set on that one. I was grateful to get the opportunity to play but relatively happy with how it played out.”
By contrast, Johnny Sexton is set to miss out on a fairy-tale finish with Leinster after an Irish Six Nations finale which was, by his own admission, the stuff of dreams.
“We’re bitterly disappointed for Johnny and it’s pretty sad to think he might not play for Leinster again, but he will be floating around doing rehab, and he has always got a lot to say with regard to how we are playing. He is essentially another coach so there is certainly a lot for him to do.
Gibson-Park namechecked all the other out-halves on Leinster’s roster, but of course will be renewing acquaintances with Ross Byrne tomorrow.
“He had to put up with a bit. He wasn’t in the Ireland fold, but he put his head down and went to work for Leinster. He has been class the last number of years so fully deserves the opportunity.”
Byrne and Sexton are also similar in the way they communicate with scrumhalves.
“They are both brilliant communicators so that makes my job a whole lot easier. Johnny has probably rubbed off a lot on Ross over the years so that must be a pretty privileged position to learn from a guy like Johnny. He is a great player in his own right.”