By Simon Collings
As Wasps prepare for another European campaign, they again find themselves with a world-class fly-half leading the way.
However, this time it is not Danny Cipriani at the helm but summer signing Lima Sopoaga. The New Zealander’s move to Wasps from the Highlanders was announced back in January, but it is only now that he is gearing up to take the Premiership and Europe by storm.
When it was revealed Wasps had signed the 27-year-old All Black, who was due to be Beauden Barrett’s deputy at next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, it was viewed as a major coup.
“When a world-class fly-half became available we jumped at the chance, as that doesn’t happen very often,” said Wasps director of rugby Dai Young.
Sopoaga’s arrival was the beginning of the end for Cipriani’s second spell at Wasps. Financially, and practically, the club could not have two fly-halves of such calibre on their books at the same time. The signing of Sopoaga may well have been a triumph for Wasps, but it is important not to underplay the loss of Cipriani.
Eddie Jones may believe he is England’s “third- or fourth-choice” fly-half, but he was arguably the best playmaker in the Premiership last season. The 30-year-old’s fine form has continued into this campaign and he masterminded a victory for Gloucester over his old side at the weekend off the back of being named the Premiership Player of the Month for September.
Transitioning from a backline marshalled by Cipriani to one led by Sopoaga will no doubt take time, even if the two do have similarities in their playing style. Both are immensely creative and eager to play flat and close to the gain-line. However, their characters are certainly different. People may label Cipriani as a maverick, but he is also an incredibly hard taskmaster and trainer. Indeed, Wasps wing Christian Wade recently joked to the BBC that he “would scream at you if you were a metre off”.
Sopoaga will, of course, not go easy on his new teammates — what All Black would? — but he has a lighter side.
“I heard they have got good fish and chips over here so I thought I would come over to this side of the world and try it out for myself,” he grinned, when asked why he had joined Wasps.
On the pitch, Sopoaga plays with the same level of fun and freedom. He loves taking the ball flat and using skill and trickery to conjure an opening in the opponents’ defence. His ideas are limitless too as shown by a quick search on Google. Indeed, his overhead kick for the Highlanders in 2016 to put centre Matt Faddes into space has to be seen to be believed.
In fact, Sopoaga’s kicking is especially deadly, with his cross-field chips proving just as accurate as his strikes at goal from the tee.
With such a repertoire of skills, it is difficult to understand how Wasps have prised the 27-year-old away from New Zealand. However, the cold reality is the financial incentives on offer in Europe are beginning to outweigh the lure of the famous All Black jersey.
“Things are starting to change and players are starting to wise up a bit,” said Sopoaga, during his first sit-down with the English media last month.
Sopoaga is not alone in his way of thinking and New Zealand are facing their own version of a ‘brain drain’. Charles Piutau is playing at Bristol for over €1m-a-year, while Julian Savea and Malakai Fekitoa are earning huge fees at Toulon. Another All Black fly-half, Aaron Cruden, is making a living with Montpellier. It means, like Sopoaga, they forfeit the chance to play for New Zealand as the All Blacks will not pick players playing abroad.
They can, though, secure their futures after rugby. New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen is well aware of the issue and has even called on government funding to help the cause. That, however, is not on the horizon and for now, the All Blacks’ loss is very much Wasps’ gain.