Lima Sopoaga left New Zealand at the height of his career.
He had only just established himself in the All Blacks squad and been in the driver’s seat for the Highlanders for a run of five finals appearances, including a maiden championship in 2015.
As far as anyone could tell, the Wasps club in England had secured themselves an excellent playmaker who could offer them experience, poise and flair at the ripe age of 27 – but that’s not exactly what unfolded.
Some players, when they transfer from one club to another, go from strength to strength while others struggle.
Sopoaga fell in the latter category and Wasps fans were quick to turn on the Wellington-born pivot for not immediately lighting up the park upon his arrival to Coventry.
Sopoaga is the first to admit that he didn’t exactly start with a hiss and a roar upon when he touched down in the UK.
“There are just a whole bunch of different things that probably played into why I wasn’t performing so great,” Sopoaga told RugbyPass.
“You come over and you say, ‘Rugby is just a game played on a square bit of grass. You’ve got to get the ball over the line and then kick it through the posts’.
“But there are a whole bunch of other factors that play into it like a new team, new culture, being on a completely different side of the world.”
Sopoaga had spent the better part of eight years forging relationships and combinations with players at the Highlanders. Joseph signed the Wellington Lion as a sprightly 19-year-old and it’s fair to say that his new team didn’t really see the best of Sopoaga until the latter half of his career with the men from the deep south.
Of course, a big part of that growth was simply due to Sopoaga getting more experience under his belt and improving as a player in his own right – but there’s also a familiarity aspect to it.
Understanding how the players around you think and act is exceptionally important for a team’s key pivot –more so than in any other position except perhaps halfback and Sopoaga had spent almost a decade learning the ins and outs of the men around him.
“I spent eight years of my life down in Dunedin; eights years of time and continuity,” Sopoaga said. “You build relationships, you understand the nuances of different players or tendencies of what players like.
“You can look at the relationship I was able to have with guys like Ben Smith and Aaron Smith, Elliot Dixon, Nasi Manu and guys like that – who I spent hours and weeks and months with, going away on trips, failing and succeeding. Sometimes you can forget that it takes time to build these relationships.
“The way I like to play the game won’t necessarily be the way guys here like to play the game. It’s kind of just finding that midpoint; what the winger likes, what the centre likes. So I think that plays a big part. And yeah, just trying to build those relationships as quickly as possible.”
Sopoaga knew exactly how he fitted into the tight-knight culture that had been created by Joseph, Tony Brown and the senior players at the Highlanders and that all changed once he joined the Wasps.
Sopoaga arrived in England at the end of August – days before the Premiership kicked off and barely a week before the flyhalf was called upon to play his first match for his new club. Sopoaga’s starting debut came just two weeks after the New Zealander touched down on UK soil.
In any position, finding top form would be a considerable struggle when you’ve just packed your life up and travelled halfway around the world to join a new team in a new country during a different season of the year. Things are even tougher when you’re expected to guide the team around the park.
Sopoaga’s task was all the more mighty because he’d replaced Danny Cipriani, who’d been arguably the form No.10 in England for a few seasons running, so pundits and fans alike naturally had high expectations.
The first month or so in the Premiership went well enough and the wins were coming but Sopoaga still hadn’t slotted in as seamlessly as many would have liked – though factor in that the Wasps backline was, at the time, missing the likes of Wille le Roux, Jimmy Gopperth, Dan Robson and Christian Wade and it’s not hard to see why the play wasn’t quite as smooth as it had been the season prior.
Results weren’t so flash in the Champions Cup and, as is typical, the microscope fell on the man handed the playmaking duties, who’d still not found his best form.
“Some guys do it really well and hit the ground running but if your team’s not doing so well, confidence is low and they’ve lost their groove, you tend to try harder but things just get worse,” Sopoaga said.
“I look at myself and the things I can control, and I probably could have controlled a few things better but I guess that’s the beauty of hindsight and being able to reflect and really look at myself in the mirror and ask myself those hard questions.”
“When I made the decision to leave Wellington, one of my cousins asked, 'What the heck are you going to that **** team for?'"@LimaSopoaga spoke to @TomVinicombe about his decision to head to the @Highlanders and where he could be going in the future.https://t.co/WuT7ocGz1L
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 17, 2020
Sopoaga’s less-than-impressive form had some fans braying for the pivot to be released from Wasps’ duties while rumours started swirling last year that either the club was looking to offload the New Zealander or Sopoaga himself was looking to make an early exit from his three-year deal. Those rumours couldn’t have been further from the truth, however.
“The rumours certainly didn’t come from me,” said Sopoaga. “I knew I was signed for three years.
“Obviously, my friends saw it, my family saw it, other the public saw it. People messaged me straight away to say, ‘Bro, are you leaving?’ and asking what was going on.
“I think if I were a little bit younger, I would have taken that very personally. I probably would have been like, ‘Sweet, I’m off, this club doesn’t want me’ but knowing what I know now, you kind of just take those things with a grain of salt and have a laugh.”
Wasps have recently confirmed their departing players for the season ahead and Sopoaga still has his feet firmly planted at the Ricoh Arena and now, a bit older and a bit wiser, the 29-year-old is ready to make the impact for Wasps that was promised when he first arrived in England.
Yup got one more year ?
— Lima Sopoaga (@LimaSopoaga) June 6, 2020
“I have the knowledge that I can deliver. I know I can play rugby well, I can fit it with the best in the world, there’s no doubt about that. I guess it’s just that when you lose your confidence, that’s a massive thing. But when you get a player who is sky-high on confidence, they’re pretty unstoppable.
“I’ve found that Mojo again, or whatever it may be and I’ve just come to the realization that I don’t have much time left in this game. If I want to go out, I might as well go out with a bang and do it the way I want. That’s with a smile on my face, that’s doing the first thing that comes to my mind when I get the ball, when I make a pass or catch a high ball or whatever – I’m going to do the first thing that comes into my head.”
In fact, Sopoaga had just started putting his best foot forward when the Premiership season was called to a halt due to coronavirus but it was in the unusual position of fullback, where the playmaker had never started a professional game prior to Wasps’ match against Gloucester.
“It was probably the most nervous I’ve been leading into the game,” Sopoaga admitted. “It was probably up there with my Test debut and the Super Rugby grand final.
“It’s a new position that I’d never played before. Obviously, you step up when you’re chucked in there from the bench but to start presented a new challenge and it was actually quite refreshing to be able to play in a new spot and I really enjoyed it.
“I really enjoyed the preparation of the week but that’s probably when I get nervous. But, on game day, as soon as I walked through the doors, I was just bouncing and happy and just couldn’t wait to crack into it and have a go.”
"I just didn’t have that same attachment to the Blues."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 7, 2020
Wasps emerged from the fixture with a 39-22 win, scoring five tries and conceding four, which left Sopoaga’s side sitting in fifth place on the Premiership ladder.
With the competition set to resume in early August, Sopoaga will be ready to stamp his mark – potentially in the 15 jersey – and will be hoping that the extended break away from the game will have him fit and firing for Wasps’ first encounter.
“I’d just come back to really enjoying my rugby and enjoying just being out there,” Sopoaga said. “[I’d been] trying to fall in love with the game again because I probably lost a little bit of that over the last year and a bit.
“The last year has been a real test not only physically but mentally. I’ve had a few injuries since being here but I want to play well and have a good time and help the boys win – the match against Gloucester was a big step in the right direction.”
With the playmaker locked in for one last year with Wasps, Lima Sopoaga still has plenty of time to win the hearts of the Coventry faithful but will be competing with Jacob Umaga and fellow Kiwi Jimmy Gopperth for game time in the 10 jersey, as well as Italian wunderkind Matteo Minozzi for the fullback berth – but that doesn’t faze Sopoaga. The Super Rugby champion knows he has what it takes to foot it with the best and at the end of the day, it’s not the opinions of the wider public that will impact how his stay with Wasps concludes.
“At the end of the day, we’re in this game and you’ve got to take the good with the bad,” Sopoaga said. “You’re never as good as anyone says you are, and you’re also never as bad.”
“I would’ve loved to keep the momentum going after the win against Gloucester but now’s a good time to take stock of what matters and that really is family and spending time with those who are near you and staying in touch with those that are really important.
“As long as your family still love you and there are people you’ve got great relationships with that still care about you, then that’s all that really matters. Everything else is just noise.”
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