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Patience pays off for Sopoaga as second New Zealand start looms

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Patience pays off for Sopoaga as second New Zealand start looms

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SYDNEY (Reuters) – A final couple of incident-free training runs and New Zealand flyhalf Lima Sopoaga’s long vigil to start his second test match will end when he faces Australia in the last Bledisloe Cup showdown of the season in Brisbane on Saturday. Sopoaga was named in the number 10 jersey on Thursday after Beauden Barrett failed to shake off concussion symptoms and the match will come 820 days after he last ran out for the world champions’ starting side.“I’m really excited and it’s a great opportunity but I don’t think I can really articulate how much it means to me,” Sopoaga told reporters in Brisbane on Thursday. Sopoaga’s only previous start was also his test debut against South Africa in July 2015, when the All Blacks opted to rest senior flyhalf Dan Carter, undoubtedly to protect him ahead of the World Cup in England a few months later. Despite being thrust into the Ellis Park cauldron, the Otago Highlander showed few signs of nerves as he calmly slotted 12 points and played like he belonged at the highest level. Sopoaga, however, admitted on Thursday he had taken time to find his feet within the All Blacks squad as he was initially the third-choice behind Aaron Cruden, and then Barrett, and he has earned just 11 more caps — all from the bench. “Over time you learn that you can be yourself here and really start to enjoy being an All Black,” he said as New Zealand target a clean sweep of wins over Australia in their third meeting since August. “When you first come in it’s quite a daunting task and hard to find your feet but I definitely feel more comfortable in my own skin.” That confidence, knowing he is firmly in coach Steve Hansen’s thinking, probably helped allay fears over a decision to further delay his own chances of earning a second test start last month. He was widely expected to line up against Argentina on Sept. 30, with Hansen initially choosing to rest Barrett and let him travel directly to South Africa for the side’s next test. Sopoaga, however, remained in New Zealand to await the birth of his first child, forcing Barrett back into the Buenos Aires-bound squad, and ultimately the starting side. Sopoaga’s daughter Milla was born the day after the squad departed for Argentina but the new father had no hesitation in declaring he would be prepared to wait for another two years to get a start. “If I have to wait another 799 days to start a test match… I tell you what, the gift I was blessed with today is well worth it,” Sopoaga wrote on his Twitter account on Sept. 23, something he reiterated on Thursday. “Some things are bigger than rugby,” he said. “I would have missed three or four games for my daughter and how special that was. “To get a start this week I feel very fortunate.”

(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O’Brien)
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