James So'oialo takes up pivotal role for Lions

CALLED UP: James So'oialo.
CALLED UP: James So'oialo.

James So'oialo will wear the already problematic Wellington Lions No 10 jersey for their match against Northland in Whangarei on Saturday.

The Tawa pivot will guide a Lions side that's gained some welcome reinforcements in the wake of their first up national provincial championship loss to Waikato.

Prop Reggie Goodes, hooker Motu Matu'u and lock Kaipati Gaualofa return from injury to stiffen up a tight five that's lost impressive young lock Christian Lloyd to a head knock.

Lloyd's injury means Vaea Fifita shifts into the second row with Oriental-Rongotai loose forward Pau Halafihi getting a call-up for his third cap at blindside flanker.

However, it won't be the pack keeping Wellington coach Chris Boyd up ahead of a road trip from which the Lions can ill-afford to come back empty handed.

Boyd has responded to an ineffective performance from his backline in attack and defence by changing his halves paring.

Highlanders halfback Frae Wilson returns as expected from a knee injury with Jared Kahu ruled out with an ankle injury, but Fa'atonu Fili's early demotion to the reserves highlights a potential Achilles heel for the Lions.

Fili showed some frailties defending at fullback against Waikato and failed to find any holes in the defence with his trademark wide passing game.

So'oialo, also a Samoan international, provides a more direct physical presence in the close channel, presumably allowing Jason Woodward to stay at fullback in defence rather than bobbing back and forth.

So'oialo has seven test caps, including a single appearance at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and a big punt, and has long held a bucketload of potential.

The younger brother of former All Blacks captain Rodney, he has had two stints in France including a season with Castres, and last year had an ill-fated two-match stint at Connacht in Ireland before returning to Wellington for personal reasons.

The 25-year-old has a confident swagger when he's on his game and after losing veteran Riki Flutey in the pre-season, Boyd will be hoping So'oialo displays that confidence against Northland.

If none of that works, untested Hutt Old Boys Marist youngster Chase Tiatia is set to make his provincial debut off the bench in Whangarei, replacing Wes Goosen. Tiatia was the leading try-scorer in Wellington club rugby this season on the wing, but his long-term future is more likely as a specialist first five-eighth.

He is part of a revamped reserves bench with prop Tolu Fahamokioa and lock James Wall dropping out of the starting side.

After starting against Waikato, promising teenager hooker Leni Apisai and Kahu drop out of the 22, as does replacement loose forward Greg Foe, a late call-up for the season opener.

Wellington: Jason Woodward, Ambrose Curtis, Ope Peleseuma, Shaun Treeby, Tau Mamea, James So'oialo, Frae Wilson, Brad Shields (c), Adam Hill, Pau Halafihi, Vaea Fifita, Kaipati Gaualofa, Eric Sione, Motu Matu'u, Reggie Goodes. Reserves: Tolu Fahamokioa, Taniela Koroi, James Wall, Henry Stowers, Sheridan Rangihuna, Fa'atonu Fili, Chase Tiatia. Northland: TBA.

The Dominion Post