The Wasps outhalf Lima Sopoaga believes the player drain from New Zealand to Europe will increase because the lure of the All Blacks jersey no longer outweighs the financial incentives on offer in the northern hemisphere.
Sopoaga has 16 New Zealand caps – two of which are starts – and signed a lucrative two-year deal with Wasps in January. He arrived over the summer, ruling him out of the international picture in light of the All Blacks’ strict policy of picking only players based at home.
It was once the case that All Blacks arrived in Europe on large salaries soon after a World Cup to see out the twilight of their careers but an increasing number are arriving in their prime. Charles Piutau, who earns in the region of £1m a year at Bristol, is among them along with his clubmate Steven Luatua, while Julian Savea and Malakai Fekitoa are at Toulon and Aaron Cruden plays for Montpellier. Like Sopoaga they are all still in their 20s.
“Things are starting to change and players are starting to wise up a bit,” said Sopoaga, who is 26. “They realise that it’s a business these days. A lot of us are starting to talk to each other more and talk about experiences and about how we can benefit from the game because it is a business and it can be pretty cut-throat at times.
“For a lot of guys like myself, who come from big families, from low socio-economic backgrounds the chance to change your family’s life is pretty overwhelming. It’s not something you should take lightly and sometimes the jersey is not enough for a better life. It is special, the experiences you have are pretty surreal, but down the track those things don’t pay for a roof over your head.”
The migration of talent is such that New Zealand Rugby has established links with Harlequins and a number of teams in Japan with a view to sending their top players on sabbaticals without losing them permanently. Tax breaks for All Blacks have also been suggested because of fears that, if a headline name such as Beauden Barrett or Kieran Read were to head to Europe, the floodgates would open.
Sopoaga added: “You can easily see why the riches of Europe for young guys appeal – rugby doesn’t last forever and younger guys are becoming more aware of that. I think that’s a good thing. For me having my daughter changed things, how I looked at rugby, how I looked at life. Rugby isn’t forever. It can all be taken away from you.”
Sopoaga made his Wasps debut off the bench last week and is in line for a first start against Leicester on Sunday. In a boost for England as well as Wasps, he could be joined by Nathan Hughes with the club's director of rugby Dai Young revealing the No 8's hamstring injury is not serious.
Young also confirmed that Brad Shields will undergo surgery on Wednesday and be out for three to five weeks with a fractured cheekbone. He will therefore be available for Wasps' first two Champions Cup matches next month as well as England's autumn campaign after It was initially feared he could be out for up to eight weeks.