Suddenly All Blacks coach Steve Hansen now has four legitimate options in the most pivotal position in the game and that’s with Aaron Cruden out injured.
As good as Sopoaga was, the selectors are likely to want to see more than one test before rushing to conclusions. But it would be surprising if they were not keen to have another look at the 24-year-old in some capacity during the two remaining tests against Australia.
Even Hansen probably didn’t expect Sopoaga to play quite as well as he did on debut at Ellis Park, but this has been a season where the Highlanders first five eighth has made anything possible.
His performance against South Africa was impressive on several fronts, but what stood out most was his self-confidence – that was evident 20 seconds into his test debut as he lined up a kick to touch from a penalty.
Ben Smith and Lima Sopoaga at post match press conference -pic Martin Myers
Standing beside Sopoaga were captain Richie McCaw and senior loosie Liam Messam who had both looked up and seen space out wide. They clearly suggested it might be worth pursuing and their young first five eighth didn’t hesitate. He tapped and went, and passed wide to Ma’a Nonu.
A minute later Sopoaga calmly slotted a long range penalty and with his second touch in test rugby confidently took on the Springboks line from inside his own 22.
It was the same sort of assured decisiveness that he displayed in the Highlanders’ run to the Super Rugby title. Sopoaga wasn’t afraid to try things, a left foot grubber didn’t go to plan but he was unfazed by the hiccups.
The All Blacks were up against it at halftime, however, their playmaker came out after the break and kicked a perfect restart, which was won by Kieran Read. He missed two penalties, threw a wide pass meant for wing Charles Piutau into the front row of the stands, but didn’t blink – landing two crucial goals down the stretch.
Sopoaga is playing with the confidence Beauden Barrett had before a troublesome knee injury slowed his progress late in the Hurricanes’ season. Hansen is spoilt for choice and his conundrum raises some intriguing questions about the final make of of the All Blacks World Cup squad.
Is Sopoaga good enough to play in a knockout match at the World Cup? Evidence this year suggests the answer is yes. If Sopoaga did make the World Cup squad, would there be room for Colin Slade and Barrett Possibly.
What is certain is some very good backs will miss the cut. Specialist fullback Israel Dagg took a step back from his effort against Argentina in Johannesburg, while veteran wing Cory Jane’s not helped by injury.
It’d be surprising if the selectors were not still weighing the option of tossing the No 15 jersey to someone else to at least investigate contingency plan during the next two tests.
Ben Smith, Slade and Barrett are all options. And what about Nehe Milner-Skudder, who seems to have become the forgotten member of the 41-man squad?
Here’s a line of thought about the first five eighths. Carter is still top dog. Nobody else manages the game like he does. Barrett is too good to leave out. His pace and x-factor are hard to ignore. And Slade’s versatility appeals on the bench.
Could Hansen’s final four outside backs end up being Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Charles Piutau and Colin Slade? If they did, then the All Blacks might end up with four world class first five eighth’s at the World Cup.
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