Sopoaga goes south for NPC, Flutey now No 1

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 31/05/2014
Riki Flutey
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ
READY TO STRIKE: Former British and Irish Lions player Riki Flutey will play for the Wellington Lions in this year’s national provincial championship after a nine-year absence.

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Lima Sopoaga is off to Southland and Riki Flutey is suddenly Wellington's first-choice first five-eighth.

Sopoaga has signed a two-year deal to play for the Southland Stags, bringing his national provincial championship alignment in line with his Super Rugby affiliation with the Highlanders.

The move comes despite Wellington's best efforts to convince the 23-year-old to stay with the Lions, for whom he has played 37 matches since 2010.

With his path blocked by Beauden Barrett at the Hurricanes, Sopoaga's decision to ply his Super trade down south made sense, but the Wellington College old boy's provincial shift will sting in the Capital.

He adds to a backline exodus of sorts that already includes Charlie Ngatai (Waikato), Alapati Leiua (Bristol), and Tim Bateman (Japan).

Wellington coach Chris Boyd said it was disappointing to lose Sopoaga, but that former British and Irish Lions player Flutey, signed primarily as a second five-eighth, provided an experienced and proven replacement.

"I watched him play for Petone against Tawa a couple of weeks ago and he ran the ship magnificently, as you would expect," he said. "With Lima, Tim Bateman, Alapati Leiua and Charlie Ngatai gone from our first-choice backline we certainly have some openings, but I'm a lot more comfortable having Riki in the hutch.

"What it does is gives an opportunity for someone else. Are we going to be potentially on paper as strong as last year? Absolutely not. But does it mean we can't perform just as admirably? Absolutely not.

"There are some good kids out there. We've lost a bit of experience in the backline, but I'm optimistic we have some very good up and coming players coming through."

Sopoaga was playing for the Highlanders against the Reds in Brisbane last night, but said in a statement the chance to stay in the south simply made sense.

"The opportunity came up and it is a good fit to stay in the Highlanders franchise and represent the region in Super Rugby," he said.

"The Stags boys in the Highlanders have nothing but good things to say about the Stags and the Southland province."

In reality, it was likely it was simply more convenient, and probably more lucrative, to align his provincial contract with his Super Rugby one.

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- The Dominion Post

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