Lima Sopoaga’s decision to forgo a prized tilt at his first World Cup in favour of a lucrative overseas deal reflects the mindset of many modern professional athletes, byLiam Napier is a sports writer for NZME
Leading New Zealand players cashing in offshore is nothing new but the age of their exits are rapidly decreasing. And these moves are, clearly, no longer timed purely around World Cup cycles.
While South Africa and Australia are regularly picked off, we like to think the core of the All Blacks squad at least is somewhat immune from poaching.
Sopoaga’s exit after one final Super Rugby campaign with the Highlanders, the team he helped clinch their maiden title in 2015, tells us otherwise. It tells us the lure of the black jersey is not always enough.
Welcome to the new norm.
As it stands, Sopoaga was a lock in the All Blacks match-day 23, and near certain to go to the 2019 World Cup. His assured goal kicking alone is a valuable asset.
Sure, he didn’t take his chances in 2017. But he still played 12 matches for the All Blacks, enjoying significantly more game-time than his previous two years at the elite level. The All Blacks don’t cast aside that investment lightly, and would back Sopoaga to grow and respond to the challenge.
But with young daughter, Milla, to consider, and soon-to-be installed Chiefs playmaker Damian McKenzie and Crusaders talent Richie Mo’unga nipping at his heals, Sopoaga has prioritised banking £500,000 to 600,000 ($1.13 million NZD) per season at Wasps over furthering his international career.
That’s his prerogative.
He may eventually return from England, but history tells us two-and-a-half years abroad will not enhance his skills, and others quickly step into the void.
The 26-year-old is far from alone. In recent times he joins All Blacks Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua, Aaron Cruden, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow as those to leave in their pomp.
With each such deflection the All Blacks lament impatience, believing the money will always be there.
Many of those players grew tired of warming the All Blacks bench waiting for chances, and fear serious injury could quash life-changing deals for themselves and family.
The reality is rugby players now view themselves as a business. Much like cryptocurrency, those on the fringe are far more intent on striking while their stock is high, rather than waiting to do so while winding down.
The catch for Sopoaga is he will walk away from a World Cup; a chance to potentially be a part of the first All Blacks team to win three successive Webb Ellis crowns.
That’s not being presumptuous, merely stating what could be on the table.
Rightly or wrongly, Sopoaga has shunned that chance. At the time of signing for Wasps he was the second choice first five-eighth in New Zealand behind Beauden Barrett.
And as the most experienced and established deputy, the next in line should Barrett fall over.
No doubt the All Blacks will be frustrated with his move, having groomed him over the past three years, a period which includes two starts at No 10. They are now left to largely start again with McKenzie and Mo’unga, both unproven.
Sopoaga nailed his first start at the intimidating Ellis Park caldron in 2015 but it wasn’t enough to gain inclusion over Colin Slade for the last World Cup. His second start last year he struggled to assert himself in a collectively poor All Blacks defeat in Brisbane.
The way the All Blacks operate, that could be it; Sopoaga’s All Blacks days may be done. Their stance is to select the best available players but if two are considered similar the one staying will be picked.
Certainly, the door is now fully ajar for McKenzie and Mo’unga to make their cases for promotion during Super Rugby.