All Blacks fly-half Lima Sopoaga has now officially confirmed his departure from New Zealand to play rugby for the Wasps in the AVIVA Premiership, a move that will take effect at the end of 2018.
Sopoaga’s departure continues a recent trend of New Zealand fly-halves leaving to play overseas. He follows the likes of Aaron Cruden, Colin Slade and Tyler Bleyendaal who have left New Zealand in recent years due to their inability to hold a spot in the XV. This reflects a trend of Kiwi fly-halves being unable to challenge modern-day greats Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett for a position in the team, despite their skill.
The Fringe Player Exodus
This latest departure adds to a large number of talented All Blacks who haven’t been the first choice in their position but are still world class. Players like Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa would have walked into almost any major test team, but the All Blacks are no normal test team. The NZRU have a limited amount to spend on the salary of their players, and cannot afford to pay large salaries to fringe All Blacks. Thus, it is inevitable that some of these talented squad members will have to chase starting positions at overseas clubs to provide for their families. Much is made of the depth of the All Blacks, but it is this depth that drives these world class players away.
This is especially pertinent in Sopoaga’s case, where Barrett has a lock on the 10 jersey for the foreseeable future and where Damian McKenzie has started to make his name on the international stage. This is what compelled Cruden to leave, and is why Sopoaga has left.
Implications for the RWC
In the 2017 Rugby Championship, Sopoaga frequently came on as a substitute early in the second half, where his exemplary goal-kicking skills saw him take those high-pressure second-half kicks. Sopoaga also offers consistency and a calmness that is so key at 10. Sopoaga seemed perfect for the pressure cooker that is the Rugby World Cup and would have played a key role in closing out matches. However, his departure means that there is a lack of experienced All Blacks for the World Cup. And if there’s one lesson learnt from the last two World Cups, experienced players in key positions is key to being successful in that environment. The All Blacks will now have to develop Barrett’s next understudy or risk entering the World Cup with a lack of depth. So who will fill that cursed 22 jersey?
Sopoaga’s replacement – a job for a fullback?
The answer may actually be at 15. Damian McKenzie has always been a prodigal talent, but now has a year of All Blacks experience under his belt. The return of Ben Smith may push him out of the fullback position, but his natural position is at 10. With the departure of Aaron Cruden, it is likely he will play the majority of the Super Rugby season at fly-half. This time spent at 10 may see him become the reserve fly-half in order to allow Jordie Barrett or Ben Smith to play at fullback.
However, McKenzie was prone to mistakes this year, where his extraordinary ability was nullified at times by strong international sides. These mistakes could cost his team dearly if he is playing in the fly-half role in the late stages of tight World Cup games. Despite this, he offers a strong kicking game. If he manages to hold a starting position for the World Cup he should be taking the kicks.
So should Jordie Barrett, if he can establish himself at 15. Beauden’s younger brother played well before his season-ending injury in 2017, with a strong showing against the British and Irish Lions on debut. However, it is unlikely that he will play at fly-half at all for the All Blacks, although he does have the ability to play at 13.
The specialist fly-halves
Another player who has recently made his debut is Crusader Richie Mo’unga. Possessing an exciting running game and an excellent skill set, he looks to be the heir to Barrett’s position. At just 22, he looks to have bright future and could benefit hugely from playing under Barrett for the next few years. Look for him to play a similar role to that which Barrett did at the 2015 World Cup. By the time the 2019 RWC is finished, Mo’unga will most likely be challenging for the starting position. But if he fails to cement that position, he could be the next fly-half to be pushed out by Barrett.
Outside of the current playing group, Ihaia West is making a name for himself at the Blues, although he appears to have committed career suicide by moving out of a starting spot at the Blues to Barrett’s Hurricanes. The man that replaced him at the Blues is former Barrett understudy Otere Black, who represented New Zealand at youth level, however, he is unlikely to make his way into the team anytime soon. Of course, if the selectors are looking for a veteran, Stephen “Beaver” Donald fits the bill, even if his All Black playing days are far behind him. All three look unlikely to be contenders in the age of magical playmakers.
The cursed 22 jersey
Much of the decision about the reserve fly-half rests on who the fullback for the 2019 World Cup will be. If Ben Smith regains his jersey, it’s likely that Damian McKenzie will be the backup fly-half. If McKenzie holds his 15 Jersey, then Richie Mo’unga may find himself on the reserves bench.
Who assumes the kicking duties is another choice that needs to be made. Whether Beauden Barrett’s up-and-down kicking form is deemed good enough for the World Cup will have a major say in who his understudy will be. Sopoaga’s departure will challenge the depth of the All Blacks, especially when a World Cup is just two years away, with a wealth of young geniuses and no seasoned veterans.
Author: David Lind
David lives in Perth, Australia, but is a born and bred Kiwi. He spends his time between studies and running the drinks for his cricket club. His articles on the 1014 allow him to let out his rugby feelings online rather than at his mates.