Sopoaga: 'The scariest moment of my life'

ima Sopoaga with partner, Miriam, and little Milla. Photo: Instagram
ima Sopoaga with partner, Miriam, and little Milla. Photo: Instagram
Just last month, Lima Sopoaga faced the scariest moment of his life.

And it couldn't have come further from a rugby field.

Sitting in Dunedin Hospital, Sopoaga watched on helplessly as partner Miriam eventually gave birth to their first daughter, Milla.

It didn't go to plan but, thankfully, all ended well.

Much has been made of Sopoaga's 27-month wait for his second All Blacks start, and the responsibility that rests on his shoulders while replacing Beauden Barrett at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.

Sopoaga knocked back a start for the All Blacks in Argentina to stay home for Milla's birth - and would happily give up several more.

After seeing his little girl make her way into the world, he now appreciates there are many more important aspects to life than what transpires on the pitch.

"I saw real pressure in the flesh which was seeing my daughter being born," the 26-year-old tells the Herald in Brisbane.

"She had to be born C-section. To see the registrar locked in and loaded that for me was pressure.

"There was a life on the line and it was my daughter. She just went about her work and got the result. That's life or death. For me, that put it into perspective a little bit.

"Obviously there's going to be a whole lot of pressure this weekend but at the end of the day, it is only just rugby.

"The sun is still going to come up tomorrow whether I have an amazing game or I play like rubbish. It makes me feel a little bit more relaxed going through those moments.

"It's probably the best thing that's ever happened to me... I just don't really enjoy the lack of sleep. I get a bit more on this tour which is good."

Sopoaga's journey is an intriguing one. He grew up in Alicetown, Lower Hutt, on the same street as Kiwis and Broncos utility Jordan Kahu.

Sopoaga's parents and two younger sisters are still based in the capital, and it is therefore close to his heart.

Kahu and Sopoaga came through Wellington College, the Petone club and remain close - Sopoaga spending his day off this week at Kahu's home with his two young kids.

Naturally, being a Wellington boy through and through, his dream was always to play for the Hurricanes.

First year out of school that changed, when his provincial coach Jamie Joseph, now mentoring Japan, and second-five Shaun Treeby moved south to the Highlanders.

Sopoaga had been offered a wider training contract with the Hurricanes; Joseph knew his potential and wanted him to sign a two-year full squad deal.

"It was my dream of all dreams to be a Hurricane but Jamie's offer I couldn't let slip. My plan was to only go down for two years and here I am eight years later still in the deep south. It's been a blessing.

"You can take the boy out of Wellington but you can't take the Welly out of the boy. Dunedin and the south is my home and they've welcomed me with open arms but I never forget where I come from. There's some great memories there."

Sopoaga always had the skills but his composure and game-management matured immensely at the Highlanders, particularly under former All Blacks first five-eighth Tony Brown.

In his time at the franchise Sopoaga has typically been one of only a handful of players permanently based in Dunedin - the rest arriving from other parts of the country each season.

He loves the way the small community gets in behind the team, and the fact you either get along with your team-mates, or have no friends.

"There's not much to do apart from hang out with each other and grow up as well. I love the culture we have down there."

Like most New Zealand No 10s, nothing has come easy for Sopoaga.

As his long wait suggests he was first forced to sit behind Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden, two of his idols growing up.

Since that duo moved to France he has gradually grown his test experience from the bench.

Coming off a solid 55-minute stint in Cape Town last week, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen believes he will handle the step up.

"He's a good player. He's confident. He's been around our environment for a long time now. He's happy driving the bus so I expect him to front up and play a really good test match," Hansen said.

"Will we play any different? No, but he is different to Beauden. What you see will probably look different but our style won't change."

When things inevitably get tight and tense at Suncorp this weekend Sopoaga can look around the 52,000 crowd safe in the knowledge that 12 to 16 of his close friends and family, those who have ridden the highs and lows with him, are there by his side again.

In the back of his mind, whatever happens, he also knows Milla will love him all the same.

"I'm looking forward to going out there on Saturday because I know I might not get this chance again for a while and that's fine because I play behind a guy that's a super freak.

"Sitting behind him inspires me because I know he once sat behind Dan Carter.

"For me this week, I'm ready to dance under them lights."

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