Sopoaga set for Super Rugby debut

Thursday March 30, 2017 Written by Published in League
Former Cook Islands league rep Tupou Sopoaga is set to make his debut in Super Rugby competition tonight for the Highlanders. 17032916 Former Cook Islands league rep Tupou Sopoaga is set to make his debut in Super Rugby competition tonight for the Highlanders. 17032916

Tupou Sopoaga might have to do a double-take when he runs out on to Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin tonight (CI time).

 

After all, less than a week after playing a pre-season club match for Woodlands in the tiny Southland farming town of Waikaka, he is set to make his Super Rugby debut for the Highlanders.

The former NRL player has been named on the bench for the franchise's sixth round match against the winless Melbourne Rebels, just a few weeks after signing up for Southland's next Mitre 10 Cup campaign

It's a rapid rise for Sopoaga, the younger brother of All Blacks and Highlanders first-five eighth Lima, and no doubt one hastened by the team being ravaged by injury in the loose forwards department.

"We think his skill set is going to be great to bring on in that second half to try and impact the game," Highlanders coach Tony Brown said.

"He's physical, but his footwork and his ball handling skills are great. He could play either in the loose forwards or in the backs. We just want him to go out there and back his skills, physicality and footwork."

After struggling for game time, the 24-year-old former New Zealand schoolboy rugby star gave up league and returned to union late last year in Australia's domestic competition.

The former Wellington College pupil played in the back-row in the NRL, and earned 16 first-grade games for the Sharks and five for the Panthers.

His inclusion in the match-day squad coincides with All Blacks loose forward Liam Squire missing a fourth consecutive match with a knee injury.

Brown had hoped Squire would be available on Friday, but will instead have to wait at least another week.

The Highlanders' injury list is still in the double-figures, with All Blacks Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo, co-captain Ash Dixon, and loose forwards Shane Christie, Dan Pryor and James Lentjes the most notable.

Brown indicated Naholo could return against the Sunwolves in Invercargill on April 22, the team's first post-bye game, while there was no clear timetable for the others to return.

Halfback Aaron Smith will play his 100th game for the franchise on Friday night, having debuted against the Bulls in Pretoria in 2011, the same game Brown reached 100 Super Rugby caps.

"We were both on the bench in Pretoria. He played his first game, I played my 100th and we had a good win that day, so fingers crossed the same happens," Brown said.

Smith will become the fifth player after Anton Oliver, Jimmy Cowan, Chris King and Ben Smith to play all of their 100 games for the franchise. Brown also played for the Sharks and Stormers.

He's shown glimpses the past fortnight his best form isn't far off, and will combine with first five-eighth Marty Banks, who has replaced Fletcher Smith in the starting side for the match.

Winger Tevita Li returns to the starting side after a rest, replacing Sio Tomkinson, who scored a try on debut last week. Li will start opposite Patrick Osborne on the right-wing.

"Sio did a great job for us on that right wing, but we see him as a midfielder more than a winger," Brown said. "I thought he had a great debut, but we wanted to give Tevita another opportunity, especially on the right wing, because I believe he'd be a better right-winger than a left-winger."

The Highlanders are chasing consecutive wins for the first time this season.

            - Stuff

Highlanders: Ben Smith (c), Tevita Li, Malakai Fekitoa, Richard Buckman, Patrick Osborne, Marty Banks, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, Gareth Evans, Tom Franklin, Joe Wheeler, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Aki Seiuli. Reserves: Greg Pleasants-Tate, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Elliot Dixon, Tupou Sopoaga, Kayne Hammington, Fletcher Smith, Matt Faddes.

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