Sopoaga delivers on debut

Date published: July 26 2015

No side knows how important it is to have good depth at fly-half more than the All Blacks after their crocked collection during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. 

Steve Hansen therefore will have been pleased with the debut of Lima Sopoaga given the Highlanders number ten looked right at home.

There have certainly been easier debuts handed out than against South Africa at Ellis Park. How many other fly-halves would buckle under the pressure?

Sopoaga wasn’t without the odd wobble, with a couple of missed penalties and one loose pass handing the Springboks a lineout in the closing stages.

Those moments however were in the minority. Sopoaga looked as composed in a black shirt as he did for the Highlanders during their unexpected but outstanding run to the Super Rugby title.

He kicked well from hand, mixed up the attack and never shied away from carrying the ball up into a number of heavy tackles.

Two years ago Sopoaga was battling it out with Colin Slade for the starting role in Dunedin, unable to string together enough consistent performances to convince those watching that he was the man necessarily for the Highlanders, let alone the All Blacks.

Since the return of Slade to the Crusaders, Sopoaga has thrived off the back of two full Super Rugby campaigns as a starter. 

It’s no coincidence that in that time while he has developed into a top fly-half that the Highlanders have gone from 14th to 6th and the play-offs in 2014, before winning the title this year with Sopoaga improving the whole time.

Sopoaga has thrived off the trust of Jamie Joseph and the rest of the Highlanders coaching staff and played his best rugby as his confidence has grown.

When that self-belief was tested on Saturday he flourished, stepping up when New Zealand needed something before half-time.

Sopoaga's 40-metre sprint cut open the South African defence, but it was his pass to Ben Smith that was special. Keeping a cool head when his team desperately needed a score was hugely impressive. 

The Springboks dominated the first half and yet Sopoaga’s break and assist meant the scores were tied at half-time, silencing the crowd. In the process he went some way to proving he belongs at the highest level.

Even that moment might not be enough to ensure he is on the plane to England when you factor in the involvement of Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett and Slade. But he will have given the All Blacks selectors a headache.

Should in the unlikeliest of scenarios there be another 2011-style catastrophe with injuries to their fly-halves, Sopoaga has proven he’s up to the task in the toughest of matches. 

Not many other countries can say that with full faith about their fourth or fifth choice fly-half.

by Ben Coles