All Blacks: Lima Sopoaga recall a deserved one

By Patrick McKendry in Dunedin

In shaking up his team for the third and final test against Wales, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is giving three new players in Elliot Dixon, Liam Squire and Ofa Tu'ungafasi their first chance at the highest level while handing recalls to George Moala and Lima Sopoaga, and of the five the latter could be regarded as the most deserving.

He has had to be patient and gets his chance via the injury to Aaron Cruden in Wellington last weekend - although Hansen may have selected Beauden Barrett in the No10 jersey and Sopoaga as his back-up regardless - and it comes 11 months after his test debut, a performance of maturity and class against the Springboks at Ellis Park in the Rugby Championship which his side won at the death 27-20.

After playing a leading role in his Highlanders team winning their maiden Super Rugby title last year, Sopoaga missed the World Cup. He was one of the unluckier ones, the selectors going for Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Barrett as their preferred No10s, but his performances have been just as good for Jamie Joseph's team this year, although, as defending champions, the expectations - from supporters and opposition teams - have become greater.

They are currently sixth on the table and third in the New Zealand conference behind the Crusaders and Chiefs.

The 25-year-old has always impressed as player with all the skills - his overhead kick with his back to the defence when the Highlanders played the Hurricanes in their thriller before the June break will live long in the memory - but it's his decision-making which has really set him apart. For that his Highlanders coaches, in particular Tony Brown, must be given credit, for it has taken Sopoaga from being an exciting but occasionally loose player to one of the highest class who would probably start for most nations.

Watch: All Black Elliot Dixon talks about his test debut


His goalkicking also sets him apart this season, at least when compared with his New Zealand rivals. Sopoaga is kicking at 75 per cent for the Highlanders, Cruden 52 per cent and Barrett 64 per cent, and that is a tribute to Sopoaga's's technique and mental application.

Cruden has improved with the All Blacks, kicking at 66 per cent at Eden Park, and adding the extras for Israel Dagg's try at Westpac Stadium last weekend before being carried off with a neck injury. His replacement, Barrett, kicked at 75 per cent at the Cake Tin. In a dead rubber against a demoralised Wales, Sopoaga, should he get the opportunity, might not be relied upon for his sharp-shooting right boot, but it is an important string to his bow nevertheless.

While Barrett has been relied upon thus far to add spark from the bench - a role he has become incredibly good at - on Saturday it could be Sopoaga's turn.

Many in the Wellington-born player's adopted home in the deep south will hope he does get a chance, and what better place to celebrate his recall to the All Blacks and his first test in New Zealand than under the roof on his home pitch?

Watch: All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith on their selection against Wales


- NZ Herald

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