Sopoaga makes good call

Sunday News - - OPINION -

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.

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