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Sopoaga: UK switch is rewarding

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'I get a lot of questions on how life on this side of the world is' - Wasps' Lima Sopoaga on his chats with former Kiwi teammates

Wasps’ rare weekend off has left Lima Sopoaga plotting and planning for this Sunday’s Mother’s Day. When he was weighing up his choices of either sticking by the Dunedin-based Highlanders after eight Super Rugby seasons or embarking on a new adventure in the UK with Wasps, one temptation that helped swing the deal in favour of a Premiership move was the prospect of having Europe and other destinations nearby.

Having made the move north the out-half has now got to live up to that promise nearing the end of a hectic campaign where he has featured in 20 of Wasps’ 27 matches across three competitions, a schedule that he has found tough to adjust to.

“When we get weeks off or time away I have been lucky enough to travel, so far that has been the big drawcard,” he told RugbyPass during a week where the Coventry club has taken stock before their end-of-season Premiership run-in.

“I guess that is how I convinced my partner to move to the other side of the world. I said that she would be able to see the world and see places that we have never seen before. I have been to Majorca in Spain so far, travelled to Dubai and got some sun.

“With Mother’s Day coming up I have got a bit of a surprise trip over the weekend. It’s going to be pretty cool. A lot of moving up here had to do with the opportunities that the UK offers being so close to Europe and being able to see things you’d never ever see living in little old New Zealand.

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“What better time to be young and fit and on the other side of the world. I can only speak for now. I probably wouldn’t be on this side of the world if it wasn’t for rugby and if it wasn’t for the opportunities that it has given me. I know when I am into my 30s and my 40s I will be back in New Zealand and coming this far around the world, that will be just a bit too much for me so why not enjoy it while I can.”

Home thoughts are never too far from the mind of the Lower Hutt 28-year-old. With Super Rugby back on the beat, the sleeping habits of his young daughter Milla ensures he keeps up with the action. “I still get up early and watch their games, probably because my daughter wakes up at 5:30 most mornings so I’m up anyway.

“It’s cool to keep in touch with those boys and I get a lot of questions asking me how life on this side of the world is and I just let them know. It has been pretty cool to see what they are doing back home as a pure spectator fan now and I love it.”

He was also touched by the New Zealand reaction to the terror attacks in Christchurch. “For a Kiwi living abroad it was really disheartening to see such a disgusting act of terrorism happen on our shores. But also it was quite emotional as well to see the love and the support that the community had for each other, especially the Muslim community because they definitely needed a lot of love and support.

“I know those families are being well supported back home by strangers, by friends, by family so it’s heartwarming to know that in the midst of such travesty that Kiwis were there for each other.”

Family was a massive consideration why Sopoaga upped sticks. He had won 16 All Black caps under Steven Hansen and would have been a contender for squad inclusion for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

However, the opportunity to financially help out his family with a salary reported to be worth around NZ$1million per year took precedence when he chose to follow the path taken by fellow former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Steve Luatua who left home at the peak of their careers. There are no regrets whatsoever nearing the end of year one of a two-and-a-half year deal.

“That’s professional sport and I made a decision based on what I thought was best for myself and for my family. Coming up here with Wasps being such a great club and having such good players and a great community that gets behind and supports them, that has definitely helped make that move so much easier. I have got to thank the club for that and the supporters for helping me adjust to life in the UK.

Wasps’ Lima Sopoaga avoids tackles from Carl Axtens (right) and Jerome Kaino of Toulouse during the Champions Cup in December 2018 (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

“I come from a family of six kids and mum and dad. That’s a fairly standard island family, I’d say. Coming from a big family there wasn’t always much going around, but we had plenty of love and we had more than enough. Sometimes these decisions to play rugby abroad definitely have that factored in, but so far I’m enjoying my time at Wasps and while it has been difficult for me on the field personally and for the club, I know I’ll be better for it.”

Sopoaga quips that the UK winter took him by surprise. “I didn’t realise it was going to be so long and dark and cold.” Far more seriously, though, he is committed to making some off-season adjustments to ensure his second season in England will be far more rewarding than a first where Wasps are currently in eighth sport with just seven wins in 17 and a whole heap of losses that should have been wins.

“We have been on the wrong side of the ledger with the few games that we probably should have won. It just comes back to maybe a bit of confidence and sometimes that is a hard to thing to get. Unfortunately we have just missed the boat on a few of the games recently and we need to find that mojo quickly and get back to winning ways.

“When I first started rugby I was kind of like life or death and I used to get pretty dark (about losing), but having a family has definitely puts some perspective on winning and losing rugby games these days. It’s tough but at the end of the day when I go home and see my daughter, she is not worried about whether I have won or lost a football game. She just wants to see her dad. Sometimes things are really put into perspective.

Lima Sopoaga was in attendance at Kenilworth RFC after their ladies side won a nationwide competition launched by Gallagher, the community insurance broker and proud title partner of Premiership Rugby

“I’d say after this year I will be evaluating the year that it has been. I’d say I will make a few adjustments heading into next season. It’s very physical over here. That is what I noticed straightaway, that guys are a lot bigger over here.

“It’s very dominated by physicality and that is a big difference. And you play so many games and have so many different competitions. Bouncing in and out of one or the other has been a challenge for me in learning how to deal with the rigours of rugby up here.”

UK rugby, though, does have its lighter moments. Having grown up in the Wellington area and been inspired by All Blacks on his doorstep, he knows the value of giving back and he didn’t hesitate in helping out on Wednesday night when Wasps held a Gallagher Premiership Train with your Heroes session with the Kenilworth Ladies rugby team.

“There was always a lot of the local talent floating around the club scene,” said Sopoanga about his grassroots upbringing. “We had Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu, Neemia Tialata when we were growing up, idolising them and seeing them.

“That was always pretty cool and I now really enjoy coming back to grassroots. For any rugby player, especially ones from New Zealand, grassroots rugby played a pivotal role in giving us that dream to play professional rugby. To come back and give back to the community, especially women’s rugby, is pretty special.

“I do think the women’s game has a big future, especially you look at the rugby sevens and what has done of the women’s game. You can just look around the world and there is some exceptional women’s talent going around. The girls play this game just as good as the guys and it’s pretty cool to see. It can only be better for the sport.”

Wasps trio Lima Sopoaga, Ashley Johnson and Willie Le Roux put Kenilworth Ladies RFC through their paces after the grassroots club won a Gallagher Insurance Train with your Heroes competition

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'I get a lot of questions on how life on this side of the world is' - Wasps' Lima Sopoaga on his chats with former Kiwi teammates