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'Everybody was starstruck': Hurricanes star left in awe of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Hurricanes wing Salesi Rayasi stole the show with a hat-trick against the Blues, but he might have opposition star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to thank for his try-scoring efforts.

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Rayasi was in hot form in Dunedin on Saturday when the Hurricanes left it late to score a last-gasp 33-32 upset win over the Blues in a match that saw Tuivasa-Sheck make his much-anticipated debut for the Auckland-based franchise.

The former NRL sensation impressed, for the most part, in his first outing as a professional rugby union player as he looked to get involved frequently, showing good footwork when taking the ball to the line and freeing up his teammates with deft offloads.

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Aside from his one blemish – a missed tackle on Hurricanes centre Bailyn Sullivan, who went on to set-up Ardie Savea’s match-winning try in the final minute – it was a successful first foray into Super Rugby for Tuivasa-Sheck.

In the lead-up to his debut outing for the Blues, the 2018 Dally M Medallist prepared for Super Rugby Pacific alongside Rayasi late last year as part of a 10-man training bubble in the midst of Auckland’s four-month lockdown between August and December.

The duo were both part of the Auckland NPC squad that only managed to play two matches before they, alongside North Harbour and Counties Manukau, were forced to withdraw from the competition.

While they weren’t able to play matches, members of the Auckland squad took the chance to condition themselves ahead of their respective Super Rugby Pacific campaigns.

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Much has been made of Tuivasa-Sheck’s pre-season training partnership with five-test All Blacks wing Caleb Clarke, but Rayasi was also able to train alongside the 2013 NRL title-winner prior to linking up with the Hurricanes.

Speaking to media in the wake of his side’s win over the Blues, Rayasi said he and his Auckland teammates were “starstruck” by Tuivasa-Sheck’s presence upon his arrival in the team after having watched him flourish in the NRL between 2012 and 2021.

“We were doing 10-man bubbles and I was in that bubble with Rog and he was awesome,” Rayasi, who is now Super Rugby Pacific’s joint try-scoring leader along with Crusaders starlet Leicester Fainga’anuku following last weekend’s three-try haul, said.

“He was such a keen learner and he wanted to learn as much as he could from the players. He would always ask questions.

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“It was quite odd because I guess most of the boys that were in the team are the age where they watched him start off as a 22-year-old in the NRL with the Roosters, so everybody was just sort of starstruck.

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“Even more myself, I remember the boarding house [at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream], watching him on a Friday night before rugby and on a Saturday, we’d all sit there watching Rog and a bunch of other Kiwi boys for the Roosters.

“When he was in the team and asking for tips, we stood back wondering what was going on. It was awesome.

“He’d ask questions, why we do things we do, and we asked a bunch of questions like ‘Why do you guys wrist pass in rugby league?’, and he explained that, and [we’d] never thought of it but it makes sense.”

Although Rayasi was one of a few Hurricanes players to have stolen the show during Tuivasa-Sheck’s Blues debut, the 25-year-old was still impressed with his provincial teammate’s efforts both on attack and on defence.

“I thought he was awesome,” he said when asked of Tuivasa-Sheck’s maiden showing in a Blues jersey last Saturday.

“When he carried and stuff like that, he was definitely deceptive. His footwork at the line, beating players, tracking players and slipping offloads off, he was awesome.

“I was really impressed with his game. It was his first game in what, how many years? And it was a proper hit-out.”

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After his hat-trick heroics, Rayasi has garnered national attention as chatter about the possibility of an All Blacks call-up grows louder, but the man himself was modest in his own assessment of his performance.

“It was all good, I was pretty happy with it. Some patches I felt I could have helped out the team a bit more.

“Coming into that game, we sort of knew what was coming from the Blues. You know they’re gonna be physical and try and beat us up through the middle and whatnot, but was just happy with the result more so than the individual performance kind of thing.”

Looking ahead to the Highlanders this weekend, Rayasi said the Hurricanes are eager to get off to a better start than they what they conjured up in the opening fortnight of the competition.

Slow starts against the Crusaders and Blues have forced the Hurricanes to leave it late to challenge for victory, with the Wellington-based side scoring a collective total of six tries and 38 points in the last 10 minutes of those two matches.

Rayasi hopes for an improved start to this weekend’s clash to avoid such a late flurry of points towards the end of the match.

“In review today we came up with some good solutions for that. It’s more on individuals to try sort that out for themselves during the week so that, come Saturday, we’re not making a last-minute gasp, we’re starting off with a bang – which is the idea coming into this weekend.”

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