Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders punt on Lima Sopoaga pays off

Joseph's decision to sign raw talent way back in 2011 proves his best work as Sopoaga emerges as key to Highlanders' game.
Lima Sopoaga. Photo / Getty Images
Lima Sopoaga. Photo / Getty Images

Of all the smart signings pulled off by Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph, his best bit of business remains his decision to lure and then persevere with Lima Sopoaga.

The rewards for identifying then nurturing such a talented but raw playmaker as Sopoaga in 2011 are being reaped now. The Highlanders wouldn't be the team they are without the accuracy, composure and direction Sopoaga provides from first-five.

The 25-year-old has come to sit alongside Ben Smith and Aaron Smith in terms of the influence he has in the Highlanders and his importance to making their game plan hang together.

Last week in the howling wind and rain of Canberra, Sopoaga steadied nerves with his goal-kicking. It was an awful night and he landed a tricky conversion and penalty that made a huge difference.

He kicked 10 times, mostly from the backfield where his covering, decision-making and scrambling were instrumental in keeping the Highlanders in front.

He also ran for 53m, -- most that coming when he timed, perfectly, his interception of a Brumbies backs' move and charged away before releasing Matt Faddes to create the critical try.

It was a display of his growing maturity and self-confidence.

And, given the conditions, it showed that he has developed all aspects of his game to the point where he can impose himself regardless of the style that is required.

This is why Sopoaga has become such a valuable asset -- he can direct and control across a portfolio of strategies.

When he first went to the Highlanders as a 20-year-old with a bit of provincial experience with Wellington, he was recognised as a running five-eighths.

He could probe close to the ruck, split defences with his speed off the mark and eye for a gap and generate space for others. But he didn't have the authority for tactical control.

His kicking game was erratic and under-used. His goal-kicking was hit and miss and when conditions were wet and wild, he'd often go missing. It was, to some extent, a relatively painful experience for the Highlanders developing him to the point he has now reached.

When Joseph, who had coached Sopoaga at Wellington, initially signed his protege, it was in 2011 as back-up to Colin Slade.

But when Slade was chopped down by serious injury and then opted to return to the Crusaders, Sopoaga was elevated to the starting No10 earlier than anyone expected.

Throughout 2014, he struggled to consistently make good decisions.

He'd tie himself in mental knots at times and was reluctant to kick his team into position. But he reviewed and learned.

He developed and advanced his skill-sets, processed his mistakes and simplified his thinking to start last season with clear objectives to focus on the things that mattered.

Sopoaga is classic proof that a test class No10 has to be built by trial and error -- it's only once in a generation that a player such as Daniel Carter emerges as the near perfect product straight out of age-grade rugby.

And the Highlanders will benefit from their patience this Saturday when Sopoaga returns to Ellis Park -- the scene of his accomplished test debut last year -- to presumably mastermind a more open, ball-in-hand performance against the Lions.

As good as he was last week in the rain, a dry ball on a fast track is more Sopoaga's cup of tea and Joseph will be confident that in Johannesburg, the first signing he made, in 2011, will prove again in Johannseburg to be his best.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 30 Sep 2016 07:17:11 Processing Time: 294ms