Sopoaga’s time is now

Monday July 17, 2017 Written by Published in Rugby Union
Lima Sopoaga is likely to provide cover off the bench for All Blacks now that France-bound Aaron Cruden’s career in the black jersey is over. 17071430 Lima Sopoaga is likely to provide cover off the bench for All Blacks now that France-bound Aaron Cruden’s career in the black jersey is over. 17071430

Lima Sopoaga has waited and waited some more, but finally it seems his time has come.

 

When the All Blacks run out on to Sydney’s ANZ Stadium to play the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship opener on August 17, Sopoaga - barring injury - should be there.

No doubt Beauden Barrett will don the No 10 jersey, but Sopoaga is likely to provide cover off the bench now that France-bound Aaron Cruden’s career in the black jersey is over.

Highlanders coach Tony Brown has no doubt his first five-eighth is ready for the job, something the 26-year-old has had to wait two years for.

Since an impressive debut against the Springboks in Johannesburg in 2015, Sopoaga has only added six test caps to his name and has had to bide his time behind Dan Carter, Barrett, Cruden and Colin Slade.

Carter and Slade left New Zealand after the 2015 World Cup, but it’s been the Barrett and Cruden show since.

Sopoaga now appears to be Barrett’s deputy, and is just an injury away from starting the first Bledisloe Cup test. That thought might be enough for some New Zealanders to want the Hurricanes to wrap Barrett up in cotton wool for the rest of Super Rugby, but not Brown.

“[Sopoaga] is a quality player. He’s probably been a little bit unlucky the last couple years that the All Blacks had Barrett and Cruden fit,” he said.

“Another time he definitely would have got a lot more test matches than he has at the moment. But it’s now a good opportunity for him with Aaron Cruden gone to get in there and carve out a pretty successful All Blacks career over the next few years.”

While Cruden played his 50th and final test against the British and Irish Lions last weekend, Sopoaga didn’t feature in the drawn series, despite being in the squad.

His last test was against Samoa last month, when he came off the bench and scored a try in the All Blacks’ big win at Eden Park.

The talented playmaker has missed the majority of Super Rugby this year with a hamstring injury, but started his first game in the competition since round three (March 11) on Friday night.

Sopoaga kicked eight points (4/5), gained 41m on nine snipes and delivered a series of crisp passes to his outside backs in the 40-17 win against the Reds in Dunedin.

He also showed a Barrett-like cross-field kick is in his arsenal, only for Highlanders wing Tevita Li to lose the ball as he attempted to ground it.

“I loved the way he wanted to attack all the time in the first half,” Brown said when assessing Sopoaga’s performance.

“When he’s playing like that it just flows through the whole team. We can score tries from anywhere when he’s in that kind of mindset.”

Having Sopoaga, a more than reliable goal kicker on the bench should help calm the nerves of those All Blacks fans worried sick about Barrett’s up and down form off the tee.

Sopoaga has been one of the best kickers during the past couple of Super Rugby seasons, and showed he’s still got his touch when he slotted a conversion from the sideline on Friday night.

But while Barrett and Sopoaga appear to be shoe-ins when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen names his squad for the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup, who he opts for as the third first five-eighth is another story.

Does he gamble and bring in Crusaders youngster Richie Mo’unga, or will he rely on Chiefs and Hurricanes utilities Damian McKenzie and Jordie Barrett to provide cover?

            - Stuff

Leave a comment