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Sopoaga desperate to impress against Lions

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 11/06/2017 Daniel Gilhooly

Lima Sopoaga is desperate to emerge from a season in the shadows and impose his creative skills on the British and Irish Lions.

Six-Test first five-eighth Sopoaga shapes as a pivotal figure for the hosts in Dunedin on Tuesday, in a team missing nine first-choice players.

Sopoaga, who hasn't started a match for three months, was released for the clash by the All Blacks coaches, who are keen for the 26-year-old to get more rugby.

With the fitness of Aaron Cruden (knee) in doubt, Sopoaga is set to back up Beauden Barrett from the bench in Friday's Test against Samoa in Auckland.

A role in the subsequent Test series against the Lions can't be discounted, leaving Sopoaga telling Highlanders interim coach Scott McLeod how desperate he was to play on Tuesday.

"By his own admission, he really wants to get on the field for this occasion," McLeod said.

"He's been picked for the All Blacks so he wants to go into that with a little bit of confidence as well."

Sopoaga started in the first three Super Rugby rounds this year but was sidelined for two months by a hamstring problem.

His three return matches have all been off the bench, behind Marty Banks.

Renowned for the variety in his kicking game, Sopoaga could be the key to unlocking a Lions defence which was near-impregnable in their 12-3 defeat of the Crusaders.

He'll have to do it without the creativity of Aaron Smith alongside, with the brilliant halfback not released by the All Blacks.

McLeod says Smith's absence will be felt but it won't stop them unleashing their trademark kick-based attacking methods.

"Aaron's a massive part of the way we play - his intensity, his accuracy and his speed," McLeod said.

"But we'll have to play our style. As you've seen in the past, that's putting the ball in behind them a little bit.

"We'll earn the right, once they hold those defenders, that we can then go to the width."

Sopoaga is sandwiched between two other players with limited game time this year.

Halfback Kayne Hammington has started one game while second five-eighth Teihorangi Walden has made three bench appearances.

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