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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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Nickers 427 days ago

I've been saying this since he switched. Could have been a bigger version of NMS. Waste of a generational talent. The two previous highest profile code swaps were both at 12 - Benji Marshall and Sam Burgess. SBW played on the wing for years before moving into the midfield.

edward 428 days ago

he played as a center at schoolboy level but as Smith points out, the defensive lines are far more difficult at pro-level. It was likely a confluence of factors that put him at 12 - his school experience, the Blues over-abundance of wings and lack of centers AND the success of SBW as a 12...all terrible reasons to play someone in that position

Chris 428 days ago

Rts was a good league player. He was the 5th best full back at the time he left.
He wouldn't of played origin if he was an Aussie.
He wasn't an elite league player, he was never going to be an elite rugby player. He got a shot at the abs after every other option got injured, but was so far off the mark the opted to move other players into the position.

Great result for the warriors is the have saved themselves a crap load of salary cap, as they were overpaying before

Andrew 429 days ago

Plus....he went to the Blues for his development, failing to recognise that theyd failed with Benji Marshall and how it was the Crusaders and Chiefs where hed
have had the greatest chance to succeed

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Jon 5 hours ago
British & Irish Lions free agent open to Super Rugby switch

There are a couple of teams who could use a stop gap experienced head. Blues - I’m not sure the Blues have signed a replacement for Caleb Tangitau (if he hasn’t been let go to make room for Barrett) yet, or whether Reiko is going on sabbatical and/or will remain in the squad. With exciting young French player Xavi Taele looking destined for higher honors in black, talented breakthrough rookie Cory Evan’s, and a couple of utilities, in AJ Lam and Bryce Heem(even Clarke?), all trying to learn the midfield trade, Williams could be a great aid. The Blues signed key English center Joe Marchant before he was raised to that level, and were possibly in the hunt to bring back the dependable Tele’a from the Highlanders. Possible the main squeeze which would put to bed any signing here would be the battle at 10 with Beauden’s return, and the forcing of Plummer back into the midfield. Hurricanes - Jordie Barrett is off to Leinster for a sabbatical next year but the more likely signing would be Billy’s brother back in the team. The Hurricanes are light on the outside with the loss of Salesi Rayasi to the Top 14 and if no quality is found to back up Kini Naholo, the midfield of Sullivan or Proctors could find themselves on the wing and space for a leader to show the Hurricanes three All Black midfield hopefuls (Higgins, Proctor, Umaga-Jensen) how its done. Highlanders - Rotation is high as usual at the Highlanders and versatility remains a strength with a lot of the squad. With compatriot Rhys Patchell signing a move to the JRLO, the passing of outside back Connor Garden-Bachop, and confirmed departure of Argentine wing Martin Bogado, the versatility of many of the young backups in the squad could see a veteran 12 like Williams being a strong partner for the robust Tele’a. With hope that the other Umaga-Jensen brother can force him out of the starting lineup, and shifting the sides general Sam Gilbert back into 10, the off-contract midfielder might seen as the perfect option for a squad still looking to fill one back spot.

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