mantra of the All Blacks is that players have to look within themselves. “The challenge is to always improve, to always get better, even when you are the best,” it goes. “Especially when you are the best.” It is a reason why European clubs have long coveted New Zealand internationals and paid them appropriately, but even the very best need time to adjust to the significant differences between the game in the hemispheres as well as move to the other side of the world.
Northampton this season signed the prop Owen Franks, a 108-cap, World Cup winner in 2011 and 2015 whose brother, Ben, was already at the club, while their opponents at Franklin’s Gardens on Sunday, Wasps, recruited the fly-half Lima Sopoaga in the summer of 2018 as a replacement for an equally instinctive pivot, Danny Cipriani. Neither has yet made the expected impact and both are on the bench, understudying their juniors.
“By Owen’s own admission and his very high standards, I would think he is a three out of 10 at the moment,” says Northampton’s director of rugby, Chris Boyd. “He has found that rugby here is not better or worse but different. It takes southern-hemisphere props generally quite a long time to adapt to the way people scrum in the Premiership and the way referees interpret the set piece.
“He has found it difficult to adjust and he is not happy with where he is at, but he is the ultimate professional, along with his brother. He has told us it is the best he has felt in 10 years because he has had a decent break. We expect a lot more from him.”
Boyd started coaching with the Wellington Lions in 2011 and then, in 2015, for the Hurricanes shortly after Sopoaga, who is now 29, began his senior career in Wellington. The fly-half stayed for two years before joining the Highlanders and then Southland, winning 18 caps from 2015 and a Super Rugby title, but having missed out on the World Cup in England he joined Wasps in 2018 to avoid the heartbreak of missing out on the 2019 tournament and having, in his own words, to “drag myself out of the gutter again”.
Much was anticipated of him but he joined a club that were losing their way and a pre-season injury to Jimmy Gopperth, a New Zealander long adjusted to England, robbed him of a mentor at 12. Suffering from homesickness and struggling to adapt to the different style of the Premiership and the climate, his form suffered. He last started a Premiership match at 10 in November, losing his place to the emerging Jacob Umaga, but he featured at full-back in the last three matches before the lockdown, with Wasps winning them resoundingly.
“It is great to see that Lima is now settled,” says the Wasps head coach, Lee Blackett. “It is difficult bringing your family across the world and having to fit into one of the most difficult positions on the field. It would affect anyone and what is most pleasing for me is how much he is enjoying his rugby again. I see him every day and know he is in a really good place: when he is like that, he plays at his best. He was one of our form players before the lockdown and we have to keep him happy.”
Boyd believes Gopperth is the inspiration for Sopoaga. “I know Lima pretty well,” he says. “He was tremendous for the Highlanders over a number of years but he has had to battle with the game here, although he should not have been surprised by it. Look at the wonderful job Gopperth has done for that club over a period of time.”
The Saints are facing the team immediately below them in the table, fourth against fifth. Wasps won three of their first 10 matches but three successive bonus-point victories took them within sight of the play-offs in a season skewed by the presence of Saracens at the bottom. And they have won three of their past four league matches at Franklin’s Gardens.
“Northampton are a really well-coached side and the break came at a good time for them because they had picked up a few injuries,” Blackett says. “I know it will be tough but I am excited by it.”