Wasps fly-half Lima Sopoaga has vowed to embrace the pressure as he aims to join a select band of players to have won top continental titles either side of the equator.
A Super Rugby winner with the Highlanders in 2015, cool customer Sopoaga will lead Wasps into Champions Cup battle against holders Leinster on Friday at a packed RDS Stadium.
It is exactly the kind of task the 27-year-old playmaker signed up for as he aims to prove why his decision to quit New Zealand and turn his back on the All Blacks was sound.
Sopoaga said: “You can never say never, but I’m happy with my All Blacks journey. It wasn’t 50 caps and I would have loved to have gone to a World Cup, but if anyone said to me as an eight-year-old that I’d play 16 Tests for the All Blacks, I’d have been happy.
“The All Blacks are pretty special and when one player leaves, three more step up; I’m a Wasps player now and the Champions Cup is something I’m really looking forward to.
“It would be special to win big trophies on both sides of the world. Wasps have been in the top four of the Premiership for the last three years and fallen at the last hurdle, so a lot of guys here are desperate to lift that particular trophy and sip a beer out of that cup.
“If I can help this team achieve that goal and then achieve European supremacy as well, that would make this whole journey worthwhile. I’m realistic and it might not happen in year one or two, but before my time here ends I believe there’ll be silverware in our cabinet.”
Wasps will encounter a wall of noise on Friday but Sopoaga is unfazed as he prepares to face down Leinster ace Johnny Sexton & Co. He said: “I was never lucky enough to play Ireland as part of the All Blacks but it looks as though I’m about to play Ireland this week in Dublin!
“There’s pressure, but pressure’s a funny old thing and for me it’s a privilege. Pressure situations can make you run and hide or it can make you rise to the occasion and enjoy the bright lights; I’m all about the latter and hopefully I’ll be able to deal with the situation.”
As a Kiwi fly-half in England, Sopoaga is following a path already successfully trodden by Nick Evans at Harlequins, Saracens ace Glen Jackson and Wasps teammate Jimmy Gopperth, all three of whom forsook their All Black ambitions before making it big in England.
Sopoaga said: “Nick Evans did really well for himself and he actually came down to Dunedin a few months ago for a bit of experience. It was awesome to have a Highlanders legend visit the club and what Nick and Jimmy Gopperth have done is provide my inspiration.
“Neither has any regrets about coming to England and since I’ve been at Wasps, Jimmy’s been nothing but awesome towards me. It’s such a shame that he’s out injured as I’d love to be playing with him, but anything I’ve needed to talk about, he’s been there for me.”
Despite being in the country barely a month, Sopoaga’s views of English rugby have changed.
He added: “My perception before I got here was totally different from what I think about it now. In the Southern Hemisphere we think rugby up here is slow and forward-orientated, but from everything I’ve experienced in the last five weeks, that’s certainly not the case.
“When the weather’s nice teams want to play with the ball and use their skill and there are pretty good athletes here. At the moment it’s an awesome league to be part of and playing in a team with guys like Elliot Daly, Christian Wade and Juan De Jongh is enjoyable.”
For now, there are no regrets. Sopoaga added: “First it’s about playing well; second, I want to make sure my family’s happy; and third, I want to enjoy everything this side of the world has to offer. On all three counts, my experience so far has been awesome.”
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