Why Sopoaga forfeited World Cup chance
INTERVIEW: Tom Vinicombe chatted to All Black Lima Sopoaga on why he left New Zealand in 2018 and forfeited the chance to play at a Rugby World Cup
In 2017, All Black Sopoaga was approached by the Wasps club to join their set-up in England.
It created a massive crossroads in the 26-year-old’s career; should he forge on and try to earn a spot in the 2019 World Cup squad, achieving the ultimate dream of many a young New Zealand rugby player, or take the money and begin a new journey on foreign shores?
You have to wind the clock back to understand how Sopoaga made his ultimate decision.
It wasn’t the first time that the Wellington-born flyhalf had tabled offers from overseas. Sopoaga had considered a move as early as 2013, when he was only a few years into his professional rugby career.
The Highlanders had just completed their year from hell, finishing 14th on the competition ladder despite having brought in a number of experienced operators to complement their young talent.
“I’d actually been given an offer in Japan and I was about to take it,” Sopoaga told RugbyPass.
“I learned that I didn’t even have to be an All Black to make good money.
“In 2013, we had the disaster in Dunedin. The rock stars came in and we still did ****. I was like ‘stuff that, I’m going to go.’”
But Sopoaga didn’t take the offer, instead choosing to stay in Dunedin and push harder.
“I had some pretty honest conversations with a lot of people – one of them was Nasi Manu,” said Sopoaga.
“We sat down and I remember he said ‘You’ll know when your time is to leave’, and he believed that the best was yet to come for me and that I should keep at it and not to tap out when I was about to.
“That was essentially what had happened – we just decided to stay and I just gave it everything.”
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It’s fair to say the decision paid off for the Highlanders pivot – less than two years later, the Highlanders were crowned Super Rugby champions and Sopoaga, who was the competition’s top scorer, received his first call-up to the All Blacks.
Those two significant achievements make it one of Sopoaga’s most memorable seasons.
“I had the best time ever, not only on the field but off the field,” said Sopoaga.
“I achieved my dream and did something with some people that are pretty special to me.”
Sopoaga’s first game for New Zealand came at flyhalf against South Africa in Johannesburg with The Rugby Championship still on the line. As far as debuts go, they simply don’t come any tougher.
Sopoaga took it all in his stride and did everything that was asked of him on the day, with the All Blacks emerging 27-20 victors.
Then everything came crashing down.
“It was like a fairy tale,” Sopoaga said.
“It was like a fairy tale – but without the happy ending.”
Because, despite his exceptional performances for both the Highlanders and the All Blacks, Sopoaga was surplus requirements for the Rugby World Cup later that year.
Instead, Steve Hansen opted to take Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Beauden Barrett to England.
After playing his guts out and showing that he was one of the best playmakers in the country, Sopoaga was still left wanting.
“Obviously, people can say ‘if you play good enough, then you’re going to get picked,’” Sopoaga said.
“But sometimes when you go to World Cups, it’s not just about how good you are but it’s also about the balance of the team. You can only take 31 guys and you may not necessarily take three specialist tens, you may only take two.”
It’s that rejection in 2015 that played a major role in Sopoaga choosing to head offshore in 2018.
“There was an opportunity here [in England] and it probably just came down to looking at some of the options for the All Blacks for 2019,” Sopoaga said.
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The No.10 spot was well contested at the time and Sopoaga was just one option of many with two years still to play before the World Cup.
“When you’ve got someone like Damian McKenzie, you’ve got Richie [Mo’unga], you’ve got Beaudie [Barrett], Jodie Barrett is an option…
“Not that I didn’t back myself, but I’d already gone through the heartbreak of missing 2015 and everything I went through that year, having to pull myself out of the gutter.”
There was also the issue that Sopoaga, despite being a superb flyhalf, wasn’t practised at covering any other positions.
Contrast that to the Barrett brothers and McKenzie, who are all equally as capable at fullback as they are in the first-receiver role.
“It was basically just a straight shoot-out between me and Richie,” said Sopoaga.
“So a lot of those things I thought about and I didn’t know if I was prepared to go through the heartbreak of missing out on selection or staying and missing out through injury a la someone like Damian McKenzie, who ended up sitting out through doing his ACL.”
It was these factors that ultimately led to Sopoaga making the call to sign overseas and head to England in 2018, instead of holding out and hoping to do the same with the All Blacks for the World Cup a year later.
“The selection for a Rugby World Cup is never really yours,” Sopoaga said.
“I’d already gone through that heartbreak. I’d just had my first daughter and Wasps put in a great offer.
“Having someone else decide my fate just wasn’t something I wanted to go through again. So I decided to take the future into my own hands and let what will be, be.”
It’s a decision that the now-Wasps pivot has never regretted, despite some tough times in England.
“I had a great time playing this game in NZ and I’m still having a great time. I’m still having experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in New Zealand,” Sopoaga said.
“It’s not too bad, whichever way you flip the coin.”
Ultimately, Hansen took Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga as his two flyhalves – although the former never started a game at flyhalf, instead being utilised exclusively at fullback. Meanwhile, Jordie Barrett had a crack in the 10 jersey against Namibia.
That doesn’t faze the now 29-year-old Sopoaga.
“This is a decision that I made and I put it to bed a long time ago and I’m just happy for those guys that are still there,” he said.
“If someone said I was going to play 20 odd times for the All Blacks and travel around the world, make a debut in South Africa and kill it then, as a kid, I would have taken that with two hands and said thank you very much.
“I’ve been able to achieve a dream that so many kids around the world would love to achieve. I’m happy with what I’ve done and I was glad to leave it at that, move on and try something else.”
By Tom Vinicombe, @RugbyPass