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How the Tuivasa-Sheck experiment could have succeeded for NZR and the All Blacks

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images and Visionhaus/Gary Prior via Getty)

The investment by New Zealand Rugby in rugby league superstar Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was worth the gamble, but like anything with risk, was not guaranteed to pay off.


When Tuivasa-Sheck’s union career is finally over and the dust settles, hindsight will reveal the missteps along the way that wasted one of the NRL’s great talents.

He came over at 28 years old, three seasons removed from being named the NRL’s best player after winning the Dally M medal, with enough in the tank to make something of it.

The most logical reason why this switch didn’t reach great heights was the preference to turn the rugby league fullback into a union midfielder, and specifically a second five-eighth, which wasn’t his most suited position.

That sole decision nullified Tuivasa-Sheck’s best asset, his deadly step which has seen many defenders fall victim too in the NRL.

In the 13-man code ‘Roger the Dodger’ has the extra space to work his magic between anyone. With two markers and a fullback, league defensive lines are down to 10 men where in union they are typically up to 14 in general play.

With 10 metres of space to wind up, Tuivasa-Sheck is operating in a dreamland of open pasture in the NRL. The midfield in union does not have anywhere near that level of space, nor time.


Defensive line speed in union is nothing like Tuivasa-Sheck has experienced before at the pro level.

In the NRL the defensive line is forced to continually retreat through a set and when the backs get the ball late in the count, the line is essentially stationary under fatigue.

In union the short lineout packages beef up opposition defensive lines with loose forwards in the midfield channels. Even with a full lineout, the 10-12 channel is a heavily guarded place. The line is fresh and can fly up and take away time and space.

The No 12 is often carrying to find gain line to create front foot ball for the next phase. Tuivasa-Sheck was effectively asked to perform a similar role to a rugby league prop.


If NZR wanted a No 12 that generates gain line, they would have been better off retaining Ngani Laumape.

The other positional challenge was the defensive load. As a fullback in the NRL he was not used to defending in the front line.

Moving to the midfield in union put Tuivasa-Sheck under a heavier load that increased the difficulty of the transition.

However, to make the most of Tuivasa-Sheck’s best asset, his footwork, a position in the back three was necessary for the fleet-footed star to find the space to move.

He needed to become a fullback to have the ball on kick returns against broken kick-chase lines, where there is space to line up mismatches and break ankles.

On the right wing he would have been able to use footwork to beat the last man, still link up on counter-attacks from the backfield or be put into the open field by the men inside him.

But for that, he needed to also possess a long kicking game, to relieve pressure in exit situations where the option to run is not on.

This is where the three years of development time should have been invested into, honing his kicking skills in order to become a back three player.

The comparable player with the blueprint for the ‘best case’ outcome for the transition is right wing Cheslin Kolbe, who is by no means a league player but has world-class footwork.

Perhaps the price tag for Tuivasa-Sheck forced NZR into thinking they needed to get more bang for their buck, deciding that the move would only suffice if he was a midfielder.

That mistake failed to recognise what having a game-changing weapon on the edge can do. Jonah Lomu was, after all, a left wing.

The All Blacks own success with Nehe Milner-Skudder as a right wing in 2015 showed how to maximise a stepping talent in union.

The former Canterbury Bulldogs U20 league player made it as a fullback for the Hurricanes and was a devastating right wing for the All Blacks.

That Tuivasa-Sheck wasn’t tried as a fullback and right winger is the biggest reason why he failed to start more Tests for the All Blacks.

There is still no shortage of options at No 14 for the All Blacks in Sevu Reece, Mark Telea, and Will Jordan.

However, if Tuivasa-Sheck had been given the No 14 jersey at the Blues when he arrived it would have denied Telea the opportunity to play at Super level and become an All Black himself.

It would have been Tuivasa-Sheck starting for the All Blacks on the end-of-year tour instead of Telea.

With Sevu Reece succumbing to a season-ending ACL injury this year and Telea out of picture, Tuivasa-Sheck would have a much better chance of heading to the World Cup.

His fortunes with the All Blacks could have been vastly different if they took a different path with his development, and the fans would have seen more of his talent shine.

At the end of the day there wasn’t a definite need for Tuivasa-Sheck for NZR, as proven by the players who have filled his role since.

But it still could’ve worked out better than it has for both parties.



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