Sopoaga leaves with Highlanders' blessing

Highlanders first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga. Photo: Getty Images
Highlanders first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga. Photo: Getty Images
Aaron Mauger has only been the Highlanders head coach a matter of months but must already contemplate recruiting another marquee first five-eighth.

The imminent loss of playmaker Lima Sopoaga – after one final campaign this year – is, perhaps, a bigger blow for the Highlanders than it will be the All Blacks.

Just ask the Blues, test quality first-fives aren't easy to find, or lure.

Outside Aaron Smith and, prior to this season under Tony Brown's guidance, Sopoaga played a major role in the Highlanders' evolution to consistent Super Rugby contenders.

Ensconced in the deep south for seven seasons since shifting from Wellington as a teenager, Sopoaga stepped up in a big way to lead the Highlanders to their maiden title in 2015, though regressed somewhat last season.

Sopoaga told the Highlanders two weeks ago he was considering his options. Naturally, they are disappointed to lose the 26-year-old to a two-and-a-half year deal with English club Wasps, one that is understood will see him earn in excess of $2.2 million.

"Clearly our preference was for Lima to stay but we understand he wanted to weigh up what he considers to be best for himself," Mauger said. "He had some attractive offers and wanted to look at the chance to set himself and his family up.

"He goes with our blessing, really. He's been a big part of the team's success particularly the last three or four years. He'll be sadly missed but he's still got a big role to play this year. We look forward to sending him off with a bang and making sure he enjoys the year and we perform."

Mauger, the 37-year-old former Crusaders and All Blacks second-five, acknowledged the changing dynamic with leading New Zealand players happy to leave these shores much younger.

"There's certainly been a trend over the last couple of years if you look at guys who have left with Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua and there's been others but every individual's circumstance is different. People have different priorities. From a public point of view we don't always understand all those things that are weighed up.

"You can't hold it against a young man if it's in his best interests."

Other than Sopoaga, the 16-test All Black, the Highlanders have 22-year-old first-fives Fletcher Smith and Josh Ioane on their books. Smith has 10 Super Rugby appearances since 2016, but moved to fullback during Otago's the Mitre 10 Cup to make way for Ioane.

While Mauger appears in no hurry to sign a replacement for Sopoaga, it would be a major surprise if the Highlanders don't scout an experienced playmaker to help guide Smith and Ioane for 2019.

"In terms of recruitment we'll see how we get through the next few months. We'll have a list of options but nothing is set in concrete at this stage.

"We've been really impressed with Fletcher and Josh and their development over the last year. Both those guys had strong Mitre 10 Cups.

"It was Josh's first season and Fletcher has had a couple of campaigns at this level now so we expect him to step up, play some good rugby and put some pressure on. Ideally Fletcher, Josh and Lima will all be competing for that spot. Those two young lads are ready to push Lima and if they do that they're going to get the best out of each other."

With the likes of midfielders Rob Thompson, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes and All Blacks halfback Smith inside and out, and Sopoaga keen to help develop his successors, Mauger admitted the young No 10s need to be groomed quickly.

"In terms of selection we'll pick the best team every week. If that's Lima it's Lima but if it's one of those young boys because they've earned the right to play then they'll get a crack."

Add a Comment