Sopoaga makes good call
Lima Sopoaga will head to the Wasps club in England on a three year contract that should set him and his family up for life.
Good on him. Living in London is hardly a penance, but from a rugby point of view, compared to being an All Black it’s a considerable step back. However, as a father, who quite rightly put being at the birth of his daughter Milla in September before a test start in Buenos Aires, the decision is a wise one.
In a purely rugby sense, it does raise some questions.
If he stayed could he have become the first choice No.10? Almost certainly not.The stage had been reached, it was clear, where only injury to, or a devastating loss of form by, Beauden Barrett, would propel Sopoaga into the starting position. Of Sopoaga’s 16 tests, he’s begun just two, against South Africa in 2015, his first test, and against Australia in Brisbane last year.
Sopoaga had a great debut at Ellis Park, so why has Barrett kicked away from him? On the one hand Barrett has developed to fulfil all expectations. On the other, in the rarefied air of international rugby apparently small issues, such as the struggles Sopoaga sometimes has clearing the ball from inside the All Blacks’ 22, take on significance. Also, while Sopoaga is no slouch, Barrett, as former great All Black first-five Earle Kirton loves to emphasise, ‘‘has the gas.’’ If a sprint race was possible between Carlos Spencer in his prime, and Barrett, the smart money would be on Barrett.
Is Sopoaga actually a great loss to the All Blacks? Definitely. He’s been part of the squad for three seasons, which means that even if he was dropped altogether at some point, he’s so familiar with the setup he could slot back in with ease. ‘‘Thank God for rotation,’’ Graham Henry says when he talks about the return of Stephen Donald to the All Blacks in 2011 at the world cup. The Beaver had been firmly placed on the surplus to requirement shelf before injuries to one, two, and then three first-fives saw him return and become a legend.
So should the rugby union have worked harder to keep Sopoaga in New Zealand? There are those who blame the rugby bosses in Wellington for everything from vapour trails to summer floods, but in the end to match the offer from Wasps, Sopoaga would have had to become one of the highest paid All Blacks. He’s a very good player, but could a $1 million plus annual salary be justified?
But with Sopoaga going, Charles Piutau playing so well, and other guns like John Afoa offshore, should there be another long, hard look at picking All Blacks who don’t live in New Zealand? Have a look by all means. For God’s sake don’t do it. Open the door to All Blacks selection for those who play in Europe and, quite apart from the disruption to the All Blacks, but our Super Rugby teams will start to look like under-23 sides.
If Sopoaga’s been No 2 to Barrett, who will play the back-up role now? Super Rugby should answer that question. The inside running definitely rests with Damian McKenzie at the Chiefs. He’s no novice at 10. He played first-five for three years in the GETTY IMAGES Christ’s College First XV in Christchurch, and when he played fullback for New Zealand Juniors in his first year out of school in 2014 he was being described as ‘‘like Gareth Anscombe and Beauden Barrett (in the Juniors), really a first-five who can cover the back’’.
Breathing down McKenzie’s neck should be Richie Mo’unga. Terrific for the Crusaders in their winning campaign last year, he is, amongst other attributes, able to carry responsibility with apparent ease. The team talk before the final training run for the highly experienced Barbarians backline before they played the All Blacks at Twickenham in November was taken by Mo’unga. ‘‘You have to if you’re a flyhalf,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s your job to make the boys believe in what you’re saying. I have no choice, it’s part of my job and I take great pride in it.’’
The battle of the 10s this year will be a fascinating watch.
‘ The battle of the 10s this year will be a fascinating watch.’
The departure of Lima Sopoaga to English club Wasps creates an intriguing battle to see who will be Beauden Barrett’s back-up at first five-eighth in the All Blacks.