Rugby: Former All Black Lima Sopoaga credits addressing mental health with form reversal

Former All Black first five eighth Lima Sopoaga has opened up about how a therapist helped turn around his rugby form on English soil, saying it was one of the best experiences of his life.

When Sopoaga left New Zealand shores in 2018, he arrived at a Wasps side in the English Premiership that demanded excellence; and by his own standards he felt he fell short of those expectations.

As the marquee replacement for English international Danny Cipriani, Sopoaga had large boots to fill and struggled to gel with the wider squad.

“You have someone who is as special as Danny, he’s always going to be hard to replace,” Sopoaga told the Daily Telegraph.

“I am never going to be that guy. That’s not who I am. Also, I was not able to build those relationships with the guys around me as quickly as I would have liked. That’s something people maybe don’t understand; that you can’t just come into a team and instantly click.

“At times, I was getting down on myself too easily and that just snowballing, at the same time as a group probably in a place where we were not high on confidence and that just filtered throughout the club.”

While the appointment of a new head coach helped with his role in the team, along with support of team doctor Ralph Mitchell and his family; Sopoaga says seeing a therapist about his mental health was a crucial step in reversing his fortunes.

“The stigma around talking and opening up as a footie player is starting to come off.

“Rugby players are looked at as these macho, tough dudes, but really, we are just like anyone else. That was one of the best things I have ever done.

“I would encourage not only rugby players, but men especially, to get out of your comfort zone. It is hard, and initially it is pretty daunting and scary, but it can also be one of the most liberating things you can do.”

That sense of liberation has now been translated by Sopoaga into a stunning reversal of form on the field in the current English Premiership season.

After losing his place in the No 10 pecking order to youngsters Jacob Umaga and Charlie Atkinson, Sopoaga has shifted to fullback where he has relished the greater freedom.

Last weekend, he scored 14 points, including a try, in Wasps’ resounding defeat of champions Exeter.

Heading into this weekend’s match against Bath, Sopoaga has no doubt that he is playing the best rugby of his time in England right now.

“I am probably in the happiest place as well mentally, and I think that’s helped my game,” he said. “It is no secret I have struggled, but I have learnt a lot going through that process and fighting my way out of it.”

He has also embraced the responsibility to act as a mentor to Wasps’ young English first fives, passing on knowledge he was once handed down to him by Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden.

“I was blessed to have some wicked mentors,” Sopoaga said. “Those guys told me, ‘One day, you will be in this position’, and they asked I do the same for a young kid coming up. They were right. I am now in this position and it would be a disservice to those who helped me on in my career if I did not pass on what I know.”

And while there’s no doubt that Sopoaga has a wealth of technical and strategic advice to give, his newfound knowledge of the power of a healthy mental state could prove to be his most valuable.

– with The Daily Telegraph

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