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'It's a tough gig': Blues star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck opens up on code switch

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Alan Lee / www.photosport.nz

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For the first time since crossing codes from rugby league to rugby union, former NRL star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has spoken publicly about his switch to the Blues.

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Tuivasa-Sheck has dominated the attention of fans and media in the lead-up to the new Super Rugby Pacific campaign after he announced last February that he would leave behind his successful rugby league career to try his hand in the XV-man game.

A place in the 2023 All Blacks World Cup squad will undoubtedly be the ultimate end goal Tuivasa-Sheck is striving towards, but the 28-year-old gave no inclination about his aspirations of playing at next year’s tournament in France.

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Nor did he give any indication about his hopes of reaching the All Blacks at all prior to next year’s World Cup.

Instead, the 2018 Dally M Medallist is focused on the here and now as he prepares himself for his first rugby union match since high school.

“I think that it’s still too early for me,” Tuivasa-Sheck told reporters on Thursday of whether he feels like a union player yet.

“I keep telling myself it’s not until I lace up and I run out in the colours that it’s going to feel official and at the moment I feel like just a rookie and I’m learning with everyone around me.”

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Those comments are indicative that Tuivasa-Sheck is well-aware of the challenges that face him in his highly-anticipated code switch.

For all accolades and achievements he attained during his glittering league career, the 2013 NRL champion understands that significant adjustments must be made to his skill set in order to succeed as a union player.

For starters, after having not played the sport since his days as a New Zealand Schools and Blues U18 representative in 2011, understanding how union has changed during Tuivasa-Sheck’s absence from the game stands as a large hurdle to overcome.

“It’s funny. It’s just totally different to be honest, coming in this level,” Tuivasa-Sheck said.

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“Playing back in school, it’s different. It’s hard sort of bringing back those sort of skills that I had back in high school to this level. Probably the other tough part is trying to break my league habits in this environment.”

Then there is the task of acclimatising to one of the most glaring facets of union that is completely absent from league – the breakdown.

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“Again, it’s such a different level. Even in the rucks, and when you’re watching from afar, there’s a ruck there and to me it just looks like mess, it looks like boys smashing in, but there’s actually a key element,” Tuivasa-Sheck said.

“There’s some key factors that the boys try, there’s some technique stuff that the boys try and do in there, It just looks like a mess. Those are the little things I’m trying to learn.”

On top of all of that, Tuivasa-Sheck then must master the art of thriving as a midfielder, more specifically as a second-five, after having played his entire league career predominantly as a fullback.

The No 12 jersey appears to be where the ex-Warriors captain and Kiwis international will play for the Blues, at least in the infancy of his union career.

It’s a role that shares few similarities to that of a league fullback, though, and Tuivasa-Sheck offered some insight into the preparatory physical work he has had to undertake in a bid to ready himself as a union midfielder.

“Probably another challenge is, with league and union, there’s a lot of different bodies. There’s a few cheetahs and there’s a few hippopotamuses out there, so you’ve got to try and adapt to different shapes,” he said.

“As a midfielder I’m trying to add a bit more weight and maybe move to 98 to 99kg where in league, as a fullback all I do is cover is and play around the 94-95[kg].”

All of this has culminated in what Tuivasa-Sheck described as a “tough” introduction to union as he continues to develop his understanding of the game’s subtleties and nuances.

“Probably the most challenging part is just understanding my result,” he said.

“I think it’s a tough gig just to come in and I try and understand my role because one week I feel like I’m starting to get it and then next week I’m out of position and you just keep learning as you go and probably creating the connections around me.

“Especially as a midfielder, you’ve got to connect with the guys inside and out you and that’s constantly changing and I’ve got to constantly adapt.”

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With so many moving parts at play in his quest for success in union, Tuivasa-Sheck has, understandably, downplayed the hype and anticipation surrounding the expectations he has of himself in his debut campaign with the Blues.

“That’s a really good question. I don’t really have the answer at the moment for that type of question,” he said when asked of what a successful season would look like for him from a personal standpoint.

“At the moment it’s just head down for me and go to work and just try to make myself official and, by doing that, it’s just earning the respects of the guys and earning the coaches’ respects to play in the Super game.”

That, however, hasn’t stopped Blues head coach Leon MacDonald from – not for the first time this pre-season – laying thick praise on his star recruit’s progress in recent weeks.

“We’ve spoken about how quickly he’s taken to the game and that’s through his professionalism and the way he works,” MacDonald said.

“Example, this morning I had a couple of clips to show him and he already had them loaded up to show me. That’s the time he takes in his preparation and you need to get out there and have a game.

“I think that’s the key. You need to go out there and go live and that’s when you really know where you need to work on. I think that’s the exciting opportunity that’s coming up in the next week or so for Roger.

“There’s only so many times you can run around against your mates. He’s built some good relationships with his players around him. He’s getting some good combinations. He understands his role really well. He loves the physicality in the midfield.”

That bodes well for Tuivasa-Sheck’s chances of selection when it comes time for MacDonald to pick his side to face the Hurricanes in their first pre-season hit-out in Takapuna next Friday.

A clash against the Chiefs in Te Puke the following week will then precede the Blues’ season-opener against cross-town rivals Moana Pasifika at Mt Smart Stadium – Tuivasa-Sheck’s old home base from his time at the Warriors – on February 18.

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Before then, though, Tuivasa-Sheck’s sole focus is to impress against the Hurricanes in what he, and the wider New Zealand rugby community, hopes will be his first step towards the ultimate prize of a black jersey.

“For this pre-season game, I think just trying to get my role right, that’s the most important part,” he said.

“I think for me and my expectations going into this is just to be in the right position so that I can add value to the players around me and not be a barrier where I’m in the wrong position so we weren’t able to play this play or because I’m in the wrong position there’s a fault in the defence line.

“That’s my biggest [thing], just make sure I’m in the right place at the right time.”

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