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Lima Sopoaga: ‘We wish we left New Zealand sooner’

By Liam Heagney
Lima Sopoaga (right) chats with Manu Tuilagi at the recent Rugby World Cup (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Lima Sopoaga enjoyed a perfect start to April. There was a visit to the Japanese F1 Grand Prix, Alpine giving the former All Blacks player VIP access to their pit lane set-up for a visit in the days before the race.

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Then came that weekend, the sealing of promotion with the Shimizu Koto Blue Sharks, the Division Three Tokyo club he signed for on a two-year deal after his two years at Lyon in France came to an end before his Rugby World Cup adventure with Samoa.

It was last Tuesday evening Japanese time when RugbyPass caught up with Sopoaga seated at home, the seagulls audible outside while his daughters pottered about politely as the baseball cap-wearing dad gave up 25 minutes of his day to talk about life in the Far East.

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“If I could describe it in one word, it would probably be ‘unique’,” he enthused. “Very unique rugby experience in the sense that they want it to be high performance but it’s pretty hard to be high performance when you have guys working sort of 10 hours days and then coming to training.

“That’s very hard but credit to the Japanese and their culture. Like, they are extremely, extremely hard working but that can be to their detriment as well sometimes. Aside from that, it’s been an experience. Just the language, the culture, food. But we have been very lucky to have travelled around the world and seen a lot of things.

“So, my family are quite open to new experiences and things not always being so easy. But very lucky that Japanese culture and Japanese people are very helpful, and it’s such a safe place. I am very grateful that we are able to experience this beautiful place.”

And the rugby? “Promotion was really important. They got relegated and were trying to come up. It was a big push from the club to get into a better league and that is probably a reason why they were looking for someone to sign here. I was able to help out as much as I could, and we got promoted.

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“It’s very different here because you don’t get so many games; you’ll play one game and then you have got three weekends no games, so you don’t really get a continual flow of games all the time. Like, we have got two games left, for example.

“We play a game this weekend, have a break, and then play our last game on May 5. So, it’s very stop-start, very hard to find continuity all the time but in the games that it has needed to be, it’s been really good.

“The last two games I have started I have played pretty well and yeah, then when I was coming back from injury, I sort of had three or four games, maybe three games coming off the bench. Coenie (van Wyk) was starting at 10. It’s been spread. There are not many games here so you can’t really judge yourself. We play 12 games this year. Top 14 we play three (Japanese) seasons in one almost.”

So what happens when it’s all over in a fortnight? “It’s three-month vacation, brother! We finish on May 5 and are scheduled to get back on August 18 or something like that. Head back to New Zealand, it will be nice to head back, just have a solid amount of time there.

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“Being in the northern part of the world I have been home sort of twice in the last six years or three times in the last seven. Yeah, just go home, see family and friends, and just get the girls around their grandparents and things. Yeah, maybe catch a bit of footy as well, international window, get along to a few games. Maybe get a holiday in there as well.”

That’s a plan that doesn’t involve making himself available to represent Samoa in 2024. It was a massive deal for the 33-year-old 16-cap All Black to change allegiance last year and play for the land of his fathers at the Rugby World Cup, an escapade that culminated in a player of the match performance versus England in Lille.

Sopoaga Blue Sharks
Lima Sopoaga in action for the Shimizu Koto Blue Sharks (Photo by JRLO)

Sopoaga opened his box of tricks that Saturday evening and royally entertained in a rollicking contest where the Samoans were agonisingly beaten by a single point by the eventual bronze medal winners.

Six months later, this renewed optimism that the Pacific Islanders were back as a force to be reckoned with has been tempered by off-the-field events, including the sacking of coach Seilala Mapusua. A sour taste has been left, leaving Sopoaga unsure of his availability for the reimagined Pacific Nations Cup which culminates with two finals weekends in Japan next September.

“I’m not too sure, to be honest. Obviously, the coach being fired; there’s been a few disappointing things happen that people sort of don’t know about behind the scenes that have really angered a lot of the boys from the World Cup and it’s kind of typical of sort of island rugby set-ups, I guess.

“Things, stories that would have heard in the past still going on in the background, so it has left a sour taste in my mouth. I’m not too sure if I can put my hand up and it’s not because I don’t want to… we’ll see how it all plays out. There have been quite a few group chats but, like I said, there have been a few off-field things that have affected that and it will be interesting to see who puts their hands up now going forward.”

Whatever the future, what unfolded in France will always be fondly remembered. “It was truly humbling and special, things I was able to learn on that tour and connect with was something that I will never, ever forget,” explained Sopoaga.

“Although we never got the results we would have liked I do think Samoa rugby was on a good trajectory after that campaign. It’s not easy playing these tier one nations with big budgets and things like that but we gave it a good crack and gave it a good shake and we were a bounce of a ball here or a drop goal there away from winning a few important games and going through to a quarter-final, but that’s just the way footy goes.

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“Yeah, it’s just unfortunate but I had the best time ever and I’m so happy that I did it and I am so happy that I did it with the boys who got selected and the coaching staff and the management because they were amazing and awesome.

“It was a pretty special time in France because a lot of the boys who play in France, most of them speak fluent French and it was easy to get around, most boys had a lot of connections. We had a really good time both on and off the field.”

Except for the panic over the kicking tee that went missing in Bordeaux following the win over Chile. “It never came back to be,” he reported. “That is something that would never, ever happen in Japan, I probably would get it back with it all wrapped up and cleaned or something.

“Yeah, I never got it back unfortunately. I think maybe the person who took it probably got scared and just binned it. Gutted about that but I got a new one and I can still kick alright. It’s not the tee makes the kicker.”

That episode aside. the World Cup was a fitting end to Sopoaga’s European sojourn, a caper that began in England with Wasps in 2018 before switching across the Channel to Lyon three years later. “Looking back now I sort of say to myself I wish I went to France sooner as we fell in love with France and we wish we left New Zealand sooner,” he admitted.

“But I’m glad we did leave and glad we did get to experience the world because it truly is a unique experience, and it grows you in ways that you will never be able to have staying in New Zealand.

“Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to be a 50 Test All Black, a 100 Test All Black, played at World Cups for the All Blacks etc, but I sort of had always known that rugby was an avenue for me to see the world and that was also a dream of mine, that I wanted to see the world through rugby and that’s what rugby has allowed me.

“I have always said the greatest thing rugby has ever given me is the experiences and the friendships and memories I have made along the way. Not just those friendships and relationships I have made inside the rugby circles, but I have got some of my best friends who didn’t come from rugby who I met living in the UK, living in France, and now in Japan.

“If I hadn’t taken that leap, I wouldn’t have those strong relationships today. It’s something I also value more so than just playing rugby all the time.

“That’s the beauty of going to places like that as I would never have met these people (otherwise). I have friends now and they have moved back to South Africa or Italy, Morocco, Nice, Lyon, and things like that.

“They are genuinely friends for life and my kids and their kids will grow up and maybe one day they will see each other or meet each other in the south of France drinking rosé or something. That’s all because we have decided to go and try something different and see the world. It truly is a blessing, and I am pretty grateful for that.”

Ardie Savea, the 2023 World Rugby world player of the year, recently spoke about how mentally rejuvenating it was to play this year in Japan, to be surrounded by fans who keep supporting rather than criticise players when results aren’t going well. Sopoaga agreed. “In New Zealand, it is a bubble; rugby really is the be-all and end-all.

“In such a small country like that it’s your No1 sport and the All Blacks are put on such a high pedestal, so I understand that. It would be similar to a footballer in England or a footballer, there is that sort of scrutiny whereas what I learned when I went away was man, rugby really is a nothing game in the scheme of it in the world.

“Even in the UK and France. Things are massive but it’s a small fish compared to some of the other sports around the world, your NFLs, your NBAs, your footballs, baseballs, things like that. It’s quite refreshing and even being over here in Japan with such great people, I am pretty sure they would be disappointed if their team loses for sure but just their culture here, they are not going to spray you or spray you to your face.

“They might talk about it behind your back, but they are never going to jump online and abuse you. That is just not who they are, and it is really nice to be in a culture like that.”

It’s a culture that Sopoaga has happily invested in, taking baby steps to potentially go into full-time coaching when his playing career does end. “I have just started doing my coaching papers right now. I have been helping out the Tokyo Phoenix women’s team and there is a guy Ken Dobson, an Aussie/Japanese dude, and he is amazing.

“He asked me to come along one day and help out the goalkickers and I started helping out one of the girls there [Yume Okuroda]. When I first started helping to put it bluntly, she wasn’t that great with his goalkicking, but they ended up making a final and she kicked six from seven, kicked like three from the sideline.

“It was a pretty cool moment seeing someone improve, helping out and seeing people and guiding people to get better and sort of having three girls myself, giving back to the women’s game is something I am pretty passionate about. I really want to go into coaching and try to share my experiences and my rugby knowledge with whoever wants to listen to it.

“The thing I love about helping out the Tokyo Phoenix girls is they are just so keen to learn, they are so keen on just getting out there and having a crack.

“It’s really infectious the energy and the vibe in the women’s camp, it’s been really cool to go into that kind of coaching knowing that I have three daughters and that motivation behind it. I hope my kids play sport and women’s sport grows no matter what sport it is.”

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Diarmid 8 hours ago
Players and referees must cut out worrying trend in rugby – Andy Goode

The guy had just beasted himself in a scrum and the blood hadn't yet returned to his head when he was pushed into a team mate. He took his weight off his left foot precisely at the moment he was shoved and dropped to the floor when seemingly trying to avoid stepping on Hyron Andrews’ foot. I don't think he was trying to milk a penalty, I think he was knackered but still switched on enough to avoid planting 120kgs on the dorsum of his second row’s foot. To effectively “police” such incidents with a (noble) view to eradicating play acting in rugby, yet more video would need to be reviewed in real time, which is not in the interest of the game as a sporting spectacle. I would far rather see Farrell penalised for interfering with the refereeing of the game. Perhaps he was right to be frustrated, he was much closer to the action than the only camera angle I've seen, however his vocal objection to Rodd’s falling over doesn't legitimately fall into the captain's role as the mouthpiece of his team - he should have kept his frustration to himself, that's one of the pillars of rugby union. I appreciate that he was within his rights to communicate with the referee as captain but he didn't do this, he moaned and attempted to sway the decision by directing his complaint to the player rather than the ref. Rugby needs to look closely at the message it wants to send to young players and amateur grassroots rugby. The best way to do this would be to apply the laws as they are written and edit them where the written laws no longer apply. If this means deleting laws such as ‘the put in to the scrum must be straight”, so be it. Likewise, if it is no longer necessary to respect the referee’s decision without questioning it or pre-emptively attempting to sway it (including by diving or by shouting and gesticulating) then this behaviour should be embraced (and commercialised). Otherwise any reference to respecting the referee should be deleted from the laws. You have to start somewhere to maintain the values of rugby and the best place to start would be giving a penalty and a warning against the offending player, followed by a yellow card the next time. People like Farrell would rapidly learn to keep quiet and let their skills do the talking.

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