Sopoaga 'unlikely' to play for All Blacks again

Lima Sopoaga in a match between the All Blacks and the Barbarians at Twickenham in November last...
Lima Sopoaga in a match between the All Blacks and the Barbarians at Twickenham in November last year. Photo: Getty Images

Unless major injuries strike, the curtain appears to have come down on Lima Sopoaga's test career.

The Herald on Sunday understands the Highlanders playmaker is unlikely to add to his 16 tests before departing to Wasps at the end of this Super Rugby season.

Throughout Steve Hansen's tenure the All Blacks have varied their policy of picking players soon to leave these shores. The general rule is the All Blacks continue to select someone who has signed overseas if rivals are not considered at the same level.

Tawera Kerr-Barlow maintained his place in the All Blacks until one week before he joined French club La Rochelle at the end of last year.

Canterbury's Mitchell Drummond eventually linked with the All Blacks as the fourth-choice halfback after featuring for the Barbarians in November. But with Kerr-Barlow considered superior to the next contenders, his place was never under threat despite his French move.

Likewise, Blues prop Charlie Faumuina was included right up until his exit to Toulouse.

The same was not true, however, for Charles Piutau, who missed out on the 2015 World Cup to Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder. Blues loose forward Steven Luatua also did not feature again for the All Blacks after committing to Bristol.

While players cannot be selected from abroad, the All Blacks have digression to make calls on departing players.

In Sopoaga's case, the All Blacks now find themselves in something of a precarious position.

Eighteen months out from the World Cup they only have Beauden Barrett as a proven, test-quality first-five. It is, therefore, imperative this year is spent grooming the likes of Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo'unga and potentially rookie Blues playmaker Stephen Perofeta.

Sopoaga is not expected to be invited to the four All Blacks camps scheduled during the Super Rugby season. It is nothing personal, but that time will be better spent getting others up to speed.

It also means no matter how well he plays for the Highlanders this season, Sopoaga is unlikely to be selected for the three-test series against France in June. The 27-year-old essentially goes from second-choice and a regular in the All Blacks' 23-man squad, to an insurance policy should injuries strike Barrett in particular.

When he signed for Wasps, where he will join Brad Shields later this year, on a two-and-a-half-year deal worth around $NZ1 million per season, Sopoaga is likely to have made peace with the fact his All Blacks career could be over. That risk always accompanies the rewards of securing your financial future offshore.

Sopoaga recently welcomed daughter Milla, and becoming a proud father influenced his decision to leave in the prime of his career.

His exit, which caught many by surprise, leaves the All Blacks under pressure to fast-track the development of others. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will be keen to see contenders show authority; take control and drive their respective Super Rugby teams this season.

Some will jump out of the blocks early; others may take time to find their groove. Kiwi derbies are likely to provide the best gauge of credentials and readiness to step up to the test arena.

At this stage, the door seems open to take Sopoaga's place.

"With Lima going we've gone from having two starting No 10s who are both comfortable driving the game to only one so it's going to be interesting watching Damian and how he goes at five-eighth for the Chiefs, Richie Mo'unga for the Crusaders and young Stephen who is injured at the moment for the Blues and all the other five-eighths for that matter," Hansen said.

"We've got a pretty open mind about that area but we're going to try and accelerate some learning throughout the year for that second guy."

Let the auditions begin.

- By Liam NapierĀ 

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