Wasps Upgrade: Sopoaga In, Cipriani Out?

Wasps flexed their financial muscles this week by confirming the signing of All Black fly-half Lima Sopoaga for next season.

The acquisition of the current Highlander number 10 accompanies the signing of loose forward Brad Shields from the Hurricanes as Wasps look to bolster an already star studded squad.

The ‘subplot’ to signing Sopoaga is whether; at 30-years-old, Wasps still have faith in Danny Cipriani to continue producing the goods, as the Coventry-based outfit look to finally legitimise their affluent roster by winning silverware.

Cipriani is out of contract this season and is already part of a 10-12 combination with Jimmy Gopperth, that was primarily incepted to accommodate two natural fly-halves in the starting XV. Now throwing Sopoaga into the mix has led to suggestions that Wasps are anticipating a Cipriani exit.

Given that both Cipriani and Gopperth don’t feature for their countries and are therefore available throughout the year, the Sopoaga signing cannot be justified as cover during the international periods. Whether Wasps have the financial might and can rotate selection enough to keep three top-level 10’s happy remains to be seen…. but it’s highly doubtful.

Upgrade Time?

Despite the realisation that Cipriani could be on his way out of the Ricoh, the signing of Sopoaga has been met with understandable joy. The 26-year-old’s move has been motivated by his frustration at playing ‘second fiddle’ to World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett; at international level. His move in effect rules him out of contention for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

It's with a heavy heart that I announce that my family and I will be leaving NZ at the end of the 2018 season. It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make but is one I'm at peace with. I have loved every minute of being a professional footballer here in NZ, I've made life long friends and memories that I'll cherish forever. I'd like to thank the Highlanders, All Blacks, Southland and Wellington for the awesome experiences you have provided me with over the years. Thank you to all the fans for your support it's been one heck of a ride. To my team mates and coaches/management over the years thank you for everything, I've been blessed to have met so many top men. Last but not least to my family & friends you know who you are the ones who have stood by me through the lowest of lows and the highest of highs you have seen both the valleys and the peaks, THANK YOU will never be enough! So here's to 2018 one last roll of the dice before I head off to experience life on the other side of the world. I'm ready. TheSops LS10

A post shared by Lima Sopoaga (@limasopoaga) on

Whilst acknowledging his All Black days are over (for now) Sopoaga has said in a public post that he is at peace with his decision. Not only will he have had to consider the financial rewards of northern hemisphere rugby, the fly-half will no doubt have been enticed by the Wasps style of rugby.

A running-back himself, always keen to deploy an audacious kick, pass or flick; Sopoaga is the kind of number 10 that should slip straight into the Wasps mould. Thus allowing Dai Young’s side to continue exciting crowds around the country.

A Change in Agenda

The move sets a good precedent for Wasps who, at the start of the season, looked to be paying the price for a somewhat inactive summer. Given that a year earlier, they’d made the effort to bring talent like Cipriani, Kyle Eastmond and Willie Le Roux to the club, it was slightly surprising that Wasps didn’t hammer home the impressive 2016/17 campaign than they had.

Not that Young ever admitted to making mistakes over the summer, but it seems a ‘change in agenda’ has been taken. Sopoaga adds value all over the field and is seen as an upgrade on Cipriani – despite his excellent form this campaign.

The signing of Shields earlier this year, whilst controversial, is also an excellent statement of intent. The feeling last term, after the departure of George Smith and the long term absence of Sam Jones, was that Wasps looked light of a world class forward in the back row.

Captain Joe Launchbury and number 8 Nathan Hughes are both integral parts of the England forward set-up but up against the likes of Saracens there remains a clear gulf. Shields should aid in reducing that gap considerably and the vocal uproar of his departure in New Zealand further emphasises his worth.

Shields to Add Something New to Pack

He helped the Hurricanes to the Super Rugby title in 2016, and enjoyed an excellent season in 2017. His move north is said to be motivated by aspirations to play for England [courtesy of his heritage]. Before he gets that chance however, he must first prove his worth in Coventry.

Given the performances he regularly put in at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington that doesn’t seem a problem. No one player, or two for that matter, can transform a sides fortunes. Shields and Sopoaga however, can certainly come close. By departing NZ shores, it means they can play the bulk of Wasps’ games – during the autumn and Six Nations International windows, when their rivals lose key personnel.

In Europe also, Wasps are knocking on that door. A semi final run in 2016 was followed up with an underwhelming quarter-final exit to Leinster a year later. This time round though, they look up against it but, two wins from their final two games should put them firmly back in contention.

Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby looks on during the Wasps training session held at their training venue on October 10, 2017 in Coventry, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Next year Young will look at his squad and see the fruits of his labours. After overcoming an indifferent period earlier in this campaign, Wasps look to have turned the corner. Although (realistically) they have probably given themselves ‘too much to do’ to end their silverware wait this year.

A week is a long time in sport, so 12 months must seem like a lifetime. Come January 2019 expect Wasps to be far better placed that they are now, owing much, no doubt, to two Southern Hemisphere acquisitions.

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