Lima Sopoaga played 88 matches for the Highlanders over an eight-year career with the men from the deep south of New Zealand.
Sopoaga’s departure left a hole in the side that even the undeniable abilities of Josh Ioane won’t be able to fill for some time and it was a major disappointment for Highlanders fans at the time.
Further up the country in Wellington, Hurricanes supporters probably understood a little bit of what their compatriots in the south were going through, given that Sopoaga had previously made the decision to sign a contract with the Highlanders instead of his native Hurricanes.
“[Back in 2011], it was either a full contract for the Highlanders or a wider training squad contract with the Hurricanes,” Sopoaga told RugbyPass.
“Jamie Joseph was coaching the [Wellington] Lions at the time but he’d just accepted a job to go down to the Highlanders. I’d played just a couple of games for the Lions at the time, I think, then he gave me a call and asked me to come down to Dunedin.
“I told him I already had a training contract with the Hurricanes and he said, ‘No, this is a full contract,’ then told me I had two weeks to decide.”
Sopoaga was in two minds about the decision but obviously didn’t have too much time to mull the move over.
On the one hand, he had a contract on offer from the team he idolised growing up, albeit one that would likely see him spending considerably more time on the training pitch that on the playing field.
On the other hand, he’d been presented with the opportunity to join his provincial coach on a journey into the unknown.
In the end, it was the quest for higher honours than Super Rugby that saw Sopoaga pack up his bags and head south.
“I had some pretty good mates who played for the Hurricanes at the time and they just said that at the end of the day, my dream was to be an All Black, and I couldn’t achieve that dream holding tackle backs – I’d actually have to be out on the park playing some rugby,” Sopoaga said.
“I decided to just go down there and get some life experience – and that’s exactly what happened to me. Not only did I grow as a rugby player, but I grew as a person.”
Sopoaga didn’t expect to start too many matches with his new team due to the presence of Colin Slade, who’d also just relocated south, but was handed the No.10 jersey for the opening match of the 2011 competition after Slade broke his jaw during the pre-season.
Injuries unfortunately hampered Sopoaga for the rest of the season too but he was still able to get some handy minutes under his belt and in his fifth year with the Highlanders, helped guide the side to a Super Rugby championship – beating his old mates at the Hurricanes in the final.
“My family and friends, especially back in the days, were die-hard Hurricane supporters to the death,” Sopoaga said.
“I remember when I made the decision to leave Wellington, one of my cousins asked, ‘What the heck are you going to that **** team for?’ – Izzy Dagg was basically their only All Black and he’d just left to go to the Crusaders.”
You can imagine that a few of Sopoaga’s old friends were a fait bit miffed when he led the Highlanders to their victory – but winning at Westpac Stadium, the Hurricanes’ home-turf, meant Sopoaga was feeling nothing but ecstasy.
“To come home and play in front of a place I’ve been to for so many games and watched the Hurricanes play my whole life, to come home and obviously to win, was completely surreal,” Sopoaga said.
“I remember having tears of joy in a moment by myself.”
The decision to head south to the Highlanders when he was still a teenager had paid off immensely for Sopoaga – in more ways than one.
“I went down as a little 18-year-old and left that city as a 28-year-old man, having achieved my dreams; winning a title and having my daughter down there,” Sopoaga reflected.
“The replay got played over and over again and my head just kept dropping more and more as I looked at it.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 13, 2020
Sopoaga is still chasing success in England after enduring a tough start to his life with his new side, Wasps. While Sopoaga’s future still resides in the UK, a return to New Zealand could be on the cards at some point – a return that might allow the first five to achieve his childhood dreams.
“I’ve got some really good mates – Ardie [Savea], TJ [Perenara] – and guys who I’ve played rugby with for a long time who are always trying to get me to come home,” Sopoaga revealed.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play for the Hurricanes. At least in the back of my mind, it’s always something that I’d consider.
“I grew up in Wellington, did all my schooling there and came up through the age-grades with guys like Brad Shields, Ardie, Jules [Savea]. I played with and against those guys the whole time I was growing up – so never say never.
In an ideal world, that won’t be any time soon, with Sopoaga thoroughly enjoying being in the Northern Hemisphere. The fly-half is well aware that he doesn’t have complete control over his future, however, and is willing to see where life takes him.
“My time over here might be cut short because of this coronavirus. You don’t know what’s going to happen, whether the competition will continue or not,” he said.
“I want to just crack on and keep this momentum going. I’d like to win something during my time up here as well.”
“I guess we’ve just got to wait and see. I could potentially see myself back [in New Zealand] at some point – never say never.”
While the sight of Lima Sopoaga sauntering onto the pitch formerly known as Westpac Stadium may send shivers down the spines of Hurricanes supporters everywhere, they may need to realign their expectations – the 29-year-old could be returning to make dreams come true, not destroy them.
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