ANOTHER young All Black has decided to move to a new environment, joining several others who have opted to play their rugby in the northern hemisphere in the last several years after failing to hold a regular place in the starting line-up or being unable to make that crucial break into the national side.
Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga is the latest to confirm that he will be playing in England for the Coventry-based Wasps after this year’s Super Rugby.
Sopoaga made a dream debut for the All Blacks against the Springboks in July 2015 in the Rugby Championship where he showed composure way beyond someone so young and making a debut but of his total of 16 caps, only one other was a start.
He had a good kicking success percentage for both the Highlanders and the All Blacks but last season especially must have seen how there could be more competition for his position in the All Blacks.
Sopoaga had a very good Super Rugby outing in 2015, helping the Highlanders to their first title after beating the Hurricanes. It was also a season when he top scored in the competition but apart from Barrett, last year’s outstanding flyhalf in both Super Rugby and the provincial competition was Richie Mo’unga of the Crusaders.
It could also be seen that the All Blacks coaches last year had a preference for Damian McKenzie to deputise for star performer Beauden Barrett and this too would have influenced Sopoaga that it was time for him to go offshore where the money would come in handy for the future of his young family, although joining Wasps automatically rules him out of the 2019 World Cup under the conditions set by New Zealand Rugby.
If he maintains his form and is free from serious injury, there could be better opportunities in the north for the player who will be 27 next month.
All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen is understandably not too willing to let Sopoaga go but despite the exodus of younger players in the last several years, New Zealand is fortunate that its rugby production line doesn’t appear to be heading for a breakdown soon.
Prior to Sopoaga confirming his move, another young player who decided that he could be better off moving to England was Hurricanes’ flanker Brad Shields.
Shields was a NZ Under-20s player but although he was good at Super Rugby level, the 26-year-old could not make the grade for All Black selection – until injury to Jerome Kaino, which caused the All Blacks selectors to offer Shields to play against a France XV last November. This however was withdrawn when Shields told them he was moving to England and would not be available for consideration for New Zealand for the World Cup.
He too will be joining Wasps and if deemed good enough by England coach Eddie Jones, could be fast-tracked into the England team since he qualifies due to his parents.
The other younger players who have gone north over the years and thus shifting from the earlier trend of those quitting NZ rugby more at the tail-end of their international career and increasing their pension fund include Sean Maitland, Gareth Anscombe, Tyler Bleyendaal and Charles Piutau.
Maitland, a former NZ Maori representative, has since being capped 29 times by Scotland, while Anscombe has played 11 times for Wales.
The latest of these younger players to qualify through the three-year residency was Bundee Aki, called up by Ireland for the November Tests.
Apart from Sopoaga, the departures most felt by New Zealand in the last one year or so would be the likes of Aaron Cruden, Victor Vito, Steven Luatua and Tawara Kerr-Barlow.
After a dip in form while an All Black, Luatua bounced back to have an outstanding Super Rugby season last year but still found it not enough to convince the selectors to recall him for the Lions series in June and July. He now plays second division rugby for English club Bristol but the club should be back in the Premiership this year.