As one of the highest-profile arrivals to this season’s Gallagher Premiership, Lima Sopoaga will join up with a Wasps Rugby side looking to go one better than their semi-final loss to Saracens last year.
Sopoaga will hope to fill the shirt left vacant by mercurial; if somewhat divisive, fly-half Danny Cipriani. That player has moved south to Gloucester. And while Sopoaga’s immense talent’s cannot be disputed, it is still unclear whether he can slot into a side that scored 79 tries last year.
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The 2017 ‘All or Nothing: All Blacks’ TV series on Amazon Prime portrayed Limi Sopoaga in an endearing light. Despite remembering how “it would be pretty cool to be out there” while watching his first ever All Blacks game in Wellington with his father, unfortunately Sopoaga’s chances to shine with his national team were limited.
No other international team has such quality players battling for the first five-eighth position: Beauden Barrett has owned the jersey and Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’Unga have fought alongside Sopoaga for back-up role. Just three of his 18 international caps have come as a starter.
But Sopoaga’s talents are clear for any rugby fan to see.
An area of the game where Sopoaga shows another strength, is in his pinpoint ‘cross field kicks’. Somewhat of a tool he pulls out of draw at opportune moments.
Lima Sopoaga brings All Blacks ‘sparkle’
Wearing the black jersey on 16 occasions, his was a career of matches predominantly from the bench. His most memorable appearance for the All Blacks, was his Test debut in one of the great rugby cauldrons – Ellis Park – where he scored 12 points on his Test debut; three conversions and two penalties.
Sopoaga scored 853 points from his 88 Super Rugby appearances for the Highlanders franchise. That included a victory over the British and Irish Lions in 2017, and a Championship in 2015. His credentials speak for themselves.
However, with such a void left by the immensely talented Danny Cipriani, can Sopoaga transfer his talents effectively to Coventry?
Here are the different facets of his game, and how they may fare on these northern shores.
Key Strength: Kicking
One of Sopoaga’s greatest strengths is his kicking, That is from both from open play and the tee. In stark contrast to criticism often thrown at some Super Rugby pivots, his tactical understanding of how, and where to kick from hand, will serve him well.
Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the Highlanders’ 29-28 win over the Bulls in Super Rugby 2018. He moved his team around the pitch meticulously and ensured they stayed in a game they were outscored four tries to two. He also scored 19 points including the game-winning penalty, which he smashed over from 55 metres as time expired.
HIGHLIGHTS: Super Rugby Week #11 Bulls vs Highlanders
The bulls had taken the lead with just 5 to go after scoring a try under the post, until Limo Sopoaga nailed a 40m penalty to snatch victory after the siren#SuperRugby #BULvHIG https://t.co/JSAlur9vEn
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Kiwi fans will also remember his uncanny accuracy from the kicking tee. In his last start for the All Blacks; against a French XV in November, he did not miss a kick at goal. He also hit a pressure-conversion from the touchline in the blustery rain for the All Blacks against Argentina in the 2017 test match.
To his credit – and a fact Wasps fans can be gld of – it was a night where Beauden Barrett struggled to complete that core duty. In the comparatively tight, nip-and-tuck style of Premiership Rugby his solidity at this task will ensure his captain Joe Launchbury and the Wasps team can control games, and put points on the board.
Lima Sopoaga skills base – Confidence with ball in hand
Sopoaga is also threatening with the ball in hand. He looks to exploit gaps close to the breakdown and – weighing 91kgs – he is a powerful runner for a fly-half and should have no trouble with the physical nature of the Premiership.
In his international debut, he scythed through the South African defensive line and threw an audacious basketball pass out to Ben Smith who scored in the corner. In Super Rugby he is also an inventive player. An over-the-head blind kick was one moment which surprised the opposition – for an out half, that is a key strength.
The talent is clearly there; the problem however, may lie when his supporting cast are considered.
Arguably, the main reason why Cipriani was so successful in the Wasps backline last year was because of his uncanny ability to pick the right pass when close to the defensive line. Ghosting off his marker, Cipriani would consistently put the likes of Josh Bassett, Eliot Wade, Willie Le Roux and Eliot Daly into holes with deft flicks and short balls. Playing at almost 45 degrees to the defensive line, he would consistently find space for others.
Elliot Daly has his say on which position he would like to play this season plus he discusses England, Wasps' recruitment and the urge to take the next step. #GallagherPrem
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Sopoaga may struggle to adapt to this, as he is more used to playing with his shoulders square to the line and either kicking, firing longer flat passes or looking to go himself. Last Word on Rugby believe his success will largely depend on ‘how they mould the backline’s attack around him?’
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Strike runners used to running shorter lines, and picking up late passes from Cipriani will need to help Lima Sopoaga to adapt. They may have to look outside with Sopoaga orchestrating them, but that may not be in itself a problem; clearly Le Roux, Daly and Wade all have ample pace to do so.
It seems that both Sopoaga and his outside backs will have time to adapt.
Unlike Super Rugby, the Gallagher Premiership is a long, drawn out contest. Consistency is the feature of successful sides. So if the Kiwi can get a good start, then even if the side have to make running adjustments, then Dai Young and his assistant coaches can work to produce the try scoring love affair, which Wasps have become so good at.
Perhaps Sopoaga could’ve been helped by Jimmy Goperth playing at 12 outside him. Acting as a second ball player who could take a pass from Sopoaga and help play the final ball to the right runner. Alas, Sopoaga does not have that luxury, after Gopperth suffered a severe ACL tear in pre-season. The prognosis is that Gopperth will be out for up to nine months.
While a set back, it is not the end. Should Sopoaga be given due time and direction, there is no reason to suggest that Wasps cannot remain a potent force in the backs.
His talents are undeniable, but he is not a like-for-like replacement for Cipriani. Will five weeks be enough? Wasps fans will hope so. After that period, the ‘prodigal son’ returns in round six, when Cipriani’s Gloucester head to the Ricoh Arena.
Dai Young, captain Joe Launchbury and Lima Sopoaga must have the boys buzzing by then, to limit to affect of any unfair comparisons. The Kiwi is his own man, and should be judged on his successful career to date, and for a bright future ahead in the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership.
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