When Steve Hansen named an enlarged 41-man All Blacks squad to play in the 2015 Rugby Championship, plenty of names stood out.

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The names carrying the most interest among fans and media were the five debutants – Codie Taylor, James Broadhurst, Lima Sopoaga, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo – included in the side.

The announcement of the squad came three months before the World Cup in England kicked off, and with 41 players needing to be trimmed down to 31 for the global tournament, there were some tough selection decisions that lay ahead.

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In conversation with Schalk Burger

Perhaps one of the most pertinent issues on Hansen’s mind was which three first-fives he would pick as part of New Zealand’s quest to clinch back-to-back world crowns for the first time in history.

Legendary playmaker Dan Carter was obviously locked in as a first-choice selection, but a season-ending knee injury to second-string pivot Aaron Cruden during that year’s Super Rugby campaign opened a spot for players who would otherwise have been considered outsiders to make the cut.

Leading the charge for the second place in the first-five trio was a young Beauden Barrett, who had regularly been in the All Blacks environment since 2012 and was impressive in guiding the Hurricanes to their first Super Rugby final in nearly a decade.

Being able to also cover wing and fullback, the then-25-year-old’s utility value was seen as a valuable asset from off the bench.

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For that same reason, 20-test Crusaders utility Colin Slade was also in contention to attend his second World Cup following the success of New Zealand 2011, but his place as the squad’s third-choice pivot was under severe threat from an uncapped wonder.

Enter Lima Sopoaga, the then-24-year-old playmaker who – after a tumultuous journey in Super Rugby since debuting for the Highlanders in 2011 – had steered the Dunedin club to their maiden title in stunning underdog fashion earlier that year.

Later crowned the best New Zealand player in Super Rugby for that season, his form was undeniable, as was the case for every other player from the Highlanders in that inflated All Blacks squad.

So, while Carter and Barrett loomed as very warm favourites to board the plane to England in September, the race was on between Slade and Sopoaga to join them.

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The historic test between the All Blacks and Samoa in Apia aside, a match of which Highlanders and Hurricanes players – including Sopoaga – were unavailable for due to the Super Rugby final, there were only four matches for the duo to convince Hansen that they deserved selection.

Slade had the first crack, coming off the bench to replace the injured Naholo in a 39-18 victory over Argentina in Christchurch in their first match of the Rugby Championship.

By replacing the Highlanders flyer, Slade illustrated his versatility across the backline, an aspect of his game that was much more vast than what Sopoaga could offer.

Still, the uncapped star was one of the form players in the country – if not the most in-form player in New Zealand – and was handed that chance to prove his worth in the international arena in the All Blacks’ very next match.

Named to start at No. 10 against the Springboks at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Sopoaga couldn’t have asked for a much tougher start to his test career.

Tasked with calling the shots in his first appearance in the black jersey against New Zealand’s fiercest foe inside a stadium renowned for its hostility towards opposition sides, it would have been understandable had he crumbled under intense pressure.

The scenario that seemed an insurmountable challenge for most, though, was an environment that Sopoaga thrived under.

Playing the entirety of the 80 minutes, the newly-crowned Super Rugby champion put on a clinic on the Highveld as he played with composure and guile to mastermind a 27-20 victory for the visitors.

12 of those points came from the boot of Sopoaga, who also nabbed a try assist after making a scintillating break inside the South African half before popping a looping basketball pass into the hands of Ben Smith who dotted down on the stroke of half-time.

The fly-half made another impression early in the second half, linking up with Malakai Fekitoa to set Dane Coles away to score a try that levelled the scores up and lay the platform for Richie McCaw to snare the match-winning try seven minutes from full-time.

Sopoaga’s eye-catching display didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter, with many online users lauding his performance and suggesting he might have done enough to make the final World Cup squad.

New Zealand’s leading media pundits were equally impressed with the Wellingtonian’s showing, with New Zealand Herald columnist Chris Rattue noting that Sopoaga had a “very satisfying for a debut in tough arena”.

Elsewhere, Stuff‘s Richard Knowler wrote: “Sopoaga impressed in his first start in black, kicking two penalties and three conversions – including a corker when he nailed the wide conversion of McCaw’s five-pointer – and set-up Ben Smith’s try.

“The confident Sopoaga’s ability to stand flat and keep the defence on their toes was notable and he often looked keen to keep the Springboks guessing.”

As things transpired, however, that was his only outing for the All Blacks in 2015.

Despite impressing all onlookers in South Africa, Barrett and Slade were entrusted as Carter’s back-ups in the ensuing Bledisloe Cup series, with Sopoaga having to watch on from afar.

Carter and Barrett were unsurprisingly named as the top two playmaking options when the World Cup squad was announced at the end of August, with Slade preferred as the third choice over Sopoaga due to his superior experience and versatility.

After going on to play a total of 17 tests for the All Blacks before departing New Zealand to join English club Wasps two years ago, Sopoaga was philosophical on his omission from the squad that went on to claim their third-ever World Cup title in dominant fashion.

“Obviously, people can say ‘if you play good enough, then you’re going to get picked’,” he told RugbyPass last month.

“But sometimes when you go to World Cups, it’s not just about how good you are but it’s also about the balance of the team. You can only take 31 guys and you may not necessarily take three specialist tens, you may only take two.”

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