'My mental health took a hit, I was so focused on filling the so-called boots of Cipriani'
These days, Lima Sopoaga inhabits a world of colour at Wasps, a life enriched and a sleep pattern decimated by two infant daughters who have pierced the monotony of coronavirus lockdown.
But it wasn’t so long ago that the fly-half was mired in blackness. A depression swallowed him during his early months in England and drove him to despise rugby. On the grimmest days, he seriously considered packing it all in. The tumult forced him to confront his vulnerabilities and taught him precious nuggets about himself.
He floundered in a new country with new teammates, new competitions, a new style of play, all the while painfully aware of the expectations that came with his CV, fat salary and the desperate thirst to replace Danny Cipriani, whose dazzling talents had been lost to Gloucester. His form fell off a cliff and he grew deeply unhappy.
“I probably hated the game for a lot of my first year, to be totally honest,” Sopoaga told RugbyPass about adjusting to life at Wasps. “I definitely had moments where I thought, I don’t know if I want to continue playing rugby.
“My mental health took a pretty big hit. I was naive in that I didn’t think moving to the other side of the world would have such an effect on home life and on me personally.
“I just thought I’d come to another country, get a house, get a car, go to training, come home, and enjoy life. You’re trying to work out simple things like which supermarket do I shop at, paying this council tax and this insurance, setting my family up at the doctor. Even in an English-speaking country, that was hard.
“What made it worse were the club not doing well and me not playing well. It just all snowballed, man.”
In that first year, Wasps struggled and so did Sopoaga. A canny club doctor, Ralph Mitchell, saw the playmaker flailing and referred him to the Rugby Players Association, who were able to arrange a form of counselling.
Those sessions and the support from his team were invaluable, but most important of all were the love of his partner Miriam and the growth of his little daughters, Milla and Isla, who are now aged two and one.
“I was pretty unhappy for a long time but we have gotten through it. I’ll be better for the struggle of moving over here and not being as successful as I’d have loved to be straight off the bat.
“I’ve got two kids to run around after and they bring so much joy to my life that when you come home after a win, they don’t care, and when you come home after a loss, they still don’t care. You go up to the after-match and they run up to you, give you a big hug and they want to have a million cookies or a drink of your fizzy drink.
“A bit of perspective is always really good for footie players because sometimes we get bogged down in wins and losses.”
"Guys were messaging each other on Instagram: 'Like bro, I'm hearing you are getting pay cuts'. This is guys from other English clubs and I'm just like, 'Bro I have no f***in' clue'"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 8, 2020
Sopoaga talks about all of this with candour and frankness. He embraces his flaws, laying much of the blame for his difficult transition squarely on himself.
He didn’t do enough research into what he was signing up for. How different could the Premiership really be to charging around in Dunedin with his mates? Rugby was rugby, wherever it was played, and he would soon boss the show in England just as he had done at home.
“I came over with the wrong mindset in that I just thought, sweet, I’m a bona fide rugby player, I know how to play rugby,” he explained. “I didn’t mentally prepare for the fact that by the time I left Dunedin, I had built these relationships with players over nine years and I expected to walk right in and run a team as I would if I was running it back in Dunedin. That’s where I came unstuck.
“The way the game is played in the north and south is totally different. A lot of that is to do with the weather – you can’t play that Super Rugby style in the middle of winter here, it just doesn’t work, and that’s what I struggled with.
What you don't understand is this. Some of those guys you see running around under the bright lights. Never once sat in those seats as kids growing up. So they 100% know the value of their contracts. #Fact https://t.co/w5NTaU4ZaT
— Lima Sopoaga (@LimaSopoaga) July 5, 2020
“As I wasn’t playing as well, I was trying harder to get better and that just made it worse. My mental health took a hit because I was so focused on coming here and filling the so-called boots of Cipriani and I really wanted to make my mark on the club. I expected it to be too much like New Zealand and I wasn’t open-minded enough.”
Injuries struck, but Dai Young’s marquee newcomer was frequently relegated to the bench or left out of the squad altogether, usurped by the old warhorse Jimmy Gopperth and the blossoming Jacob Umaga.
At the end of his first season at Wasps, Stuart Barnes, one of British rugby’s foremost pundits, described the signing of Sopoaga as a “clumsy mistake”. Another newspaper ranked him as the worst acquisition of the Premiership campaign.
Naturally, the criticism hurt his family back in New Zealand. Sopoaga took some heat on social media too, where he is very active, and he fears the way fans and journalists interact with players is going to harm the image of the game. Rugby demands more characters and less blandness – then savages those who put their heads above the parapet.
“You’re looking through a particular lens and saying, this guy’s crap, what a waste of money. But when you criticise players, do you know that one guy has maybe lost his dad, or another is going through off-field stuff that you have no idea about? Maybe the club’s not treating him right.
“The big thing is, especially in media and online, fans want characters but then when guys show who they truly are… for example Ellis Genge, an awesome character who is great for the game and I think is quite funny.
“He did that one interview after England beat Scotland where he had a beer in his hand, and everybody is like, what’s he doing, a boy from the estate or whatever. They kick him down and say all this bad stuff about him.
“Hold on a minute, he’s going to walk in the changing room and celebrate the win and drink a beer there – what’s the difference? The backdrop behind him, half the sponsors on there are alcohol brands anyway! It just doesn’t make sense. What do you want from players?
“You get reporters wanting to do interviews with guys and they get the same old answers. Sometimes players hold themselves in from being who they truly really want to be because they don’t want this backlash. And then people are like, man, rugby’s boring, where are all the characters? You get the characters and they say, nah, we don’t want it like that, we want it like this.”
A month out from the Premiership’s return, Sopoaga plans to fulfil the final year of his Wasps contract and then see where rugby and life take him in 2021.
Young, the director of rugby who brought him to Coventry, stepped back from first-team duties in February after a meek start to the season, but Wasps have rallied. Under Lee Blackett, they propelled themselves four places up the table to fifth, with Sopoaga spending the final matches before rugby was suspended at full-back. At last, he looked and felt truly at ease.
“I just want to win a comp really,” he said. “Before the lockdown, we had turned a corner as a group of players and as a club and we were on the rise. I’d love to see us make the top four, get our hat in the ring, and whatever happens in the finals happens.
— Wasps Rugby (@WaspsRugby) July 10, 2020
“I like the freedom of playing 15. You end up organising the backline and helping out the 10 a lot. As a ten myself, I know what Jacob or Jimmy need from me at the back. I’m a voice, I’m their eyes, I’m their ears.
“It’s been awesome adding another string to my bow, but I still love ten, I love being the shot-caller and running a team.
“Before lockdown I was really enjoying rugby, it was really fun, and I just want to get back to that. I want to get back to loving my rugby because I’d started to find the joy again.”
The smile and the vigour is back now, happiness underpinned by the chaotic bliss of home. Sopoaga is stronger for the pain he endured while at Wasps. He is ready to rip into rugby again, primed to step out of the darkness and into the light.
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