In 2021, the hype was real.
Having strung together some consistently successful results for himself as an individual, despite the dark ages of the Stephen Kearney era, many All Blacks fans were proclaiming Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as the "answer" to the All Blacks' number 12 jersey; with some even believing he'd end up as captain of the All Blacks.
Tuivasa-Sheck became the Warriors' captain at just 23 years old, in 2017, despite struggles with an ACL injury the year before. In 2018, he was the NRL's Fullback of the Year and Dally M Medalist of the Year, becoming the first player from the Warriors to receive the latter accolade. Tuivasa-Sheck opted to sign a two-year deal with New Zealand Rugby for 2022 and 2023 after Government restrictions against COVID-19, forced the Warriors to relocate to Australia amongst the pandemic. This move was of course what Tuivasa-Sheck saw as best for his family.
While several people couldn't stop talking about the code switch, I looked to await Tuivasa-Sheck's return to union before judging his capability to play test rugby; as his first Blues game was set to take place 10 years after his last union game, when he represented the Blues' U18 side. I didn't jump on the bandwagon but did wish him well on a New Years' Eve post, stating "Super curious about how you'll do in Union for 2022 mate, wishing you well", with Tuivasa-Sheck then demonstrating his humility in a thankful response.
Though the season began with a try and an injury mid-way through, 2022 did indeed see Tuivasa-Sheck beat Alex Nankivell and Peter Umaga-Jensen to a spot in the All Blacks. His test debut was on 16th July that year, in a loss to Ireland in Wellington; Tuivasa-Sheck spent 11 minutes in the 12 position, with David Havili, the incumbent, shifting out to 13.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (23), pictured on his test debut for the All Blacks, exits a ruck inside his own half at Sky Stadium. Photo: Max Sharp.
After finding minutes hard to come by, even after Quinn Tupaea's torn ACL, Tuivasa-Sheck finished the year off with just 91 minutes of test rugby under his belt, with Jordie Barrett playing 276 test minutes at 12 and Havili amassing 460 total minutes; nearly half of the 1040 that were available to play.
Tuivasa-Sheck has since signed on for a Warriors return in 2024, so fast forward to the present day and I'm now having to remove disrespectful comments about Tuivasa-Sheck from Instagram posts. Some have cited "disloyalty" as a reason for the Blues' near-refusal to give him much game time in 2023; when disrespecting Tuivasa-Sheck online.
So how did the hype around Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, from fanatic supporters, turn into toxic comments from this same frustrated bunch? Let's examine the different talking points around how his code switch has gone, as well as what we could learn from this "experiment" as some have called it.
AGE & EXPERIENCE
There have been several code-switching league players across the two codes' rivalry, with notable examples of success including Brad Thorn, Jason Robinson, Sonny Bill Williams, Israel Folau, Lote Tuquiri, Marika Koroibete and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
When looking at the natural skills of players like those, more casual supporters (from my observation), have tended to overvalue the code-switchers and I've seen several suggestions in the mainstream media about possible converts to sign. An example that comes to mind is the Kalyn Ponga discussion from the late 2010's, while to this day, I still regularly receive messages, asking me about the possibility of (insert player name) and their "chances of coming over to union".
What many have failed to realise though, is that for every cross-code success, there is a cross-code failure.
Players such as Ngani Laumape, Denny Solomona, Karmichael Hunt, Sam Burgess, Shontayne Hape, Matt Duffie and the most infamous example, Benji Marshall; all failed for a different individual reason, to cement their place as a player with a long-term international career; after leaving league and arriving in union.
A key contributing factor to the aforementioned successful players, is that aside from Robinson and Thorn, all were under the age of 25 when switching over from league to union, with their brains still malleable and yet to develop. Most credible scientists claim that the male brain finishes its development in the organism's mid-to-late 20's, with several outlets estimating the stoppage of a brain remodel at age 25. Rugby, as a sport itself, is also a young man's game, being a contact sport; giving athletes a limited time window to develop an all-round game, before retirement eventually knocks at the door to prevent arthritis or CTE.
With time left in their opportunity for brain development, Folau and Williams were noticeably able to soak in the changes needed to return to union; though Williams was prone to the occasional moment of confusion, which we can all face of course.
By debuting for the Blues at the age of 28, Tuivasa-Sheck gave himself a massive disadvantage, missing out on 10 years' worth of ruck hitting, kicking and tactical analysis, while his arrival into the All Blacks, at the halfway point of a World Cup cycle, gave him limited time to readjust after a decade away from union.
INHERENT FLAWS IN RUGBY LEAGUE
While Tuivasa-Sheck was away from union, it changed rapidly. The driving maul has become far more pronounced since 2011, head injury protocols (HIA, contact to the head laws) actually exist now, the 50-22 has been introduced, while Super Rugby now has different laws to the Six Nations.
League on the other hand, has a culture of highlight reels and "big hits", that not all union fans watch the game for. League is far more relaxed regarding player safety, while set-pieces do not exist. Throw-ins take place, not lineouts, while union props would call their scrums "golden oldies".
These differences have created league into far less of a tactical game, with players almost always just looking to "run it straight", while kicking is far less common. Fullback is a position in league, that is near-exclusively relied on for a counter attack, which was a great strength of Tuivasa-Sheck's.
The lack of a kicking game used by rugby league teams (Tuivasa-Sheck made just one kick during the round-robin stage of Super Rugby in 2023), as well as the lack of space to step and spot holes, provided to Tuivasa-Sheck from 12, meant he was not performing the same role for the Warriors, as he now does for the Blues.
These flaws in league, effectively created flaws in Tuivasa-Sheck playing 12. I'd predicted for the Blues to utilise him there in a YouTube video previewing the team ahead of their 2022 season, but this would prove a double-edged sword of a decision. Such a role would give Tuivasa-Sheck more longevity in union, but also expose his key deficiency off the boot.
A season preview for the Blues' 2022 season, filmed at Eden Park.
As Tuivasa-Sheck had built a reputation as world-class in another sport, he came along providing a good marketing resource, as well as his 2022 stat sheet of 704 metres, 30 defenders beaten, 9 offloads, 3 clean breaks, 2 try assists and 87 carries, to go with a tackle rate of 91% for the season. While Tuivasa-Sheck racked up these numbers, he had yet to be tested behind a poorly-performing pack, prior to the Super Rugby Final.
While an extremely loud vocal minority of rugby fans, have worked their hardest to overturn David Havili's comeback story of a return to test rugby, after his drop to 88kg after a 2020 bowel surgery, the Super Rugby Final defeated the narrative for good.
The Crusaders won this final by winning the aerial battle, breakdown battle and lineout battle, with the Mo'unga-Havili axis at the forefront of this Crusaders kicking success. With the Blues unable to compete in the air, Tuivasa-Sheck was subbed off in just the 45th minute, for Bryce Heem; while also being contained to 5 metres off 4 carries. While Havili is the same weight as Tuivasa-Sheck (96kg), his lack of time in league, has made him a more well-rounded player.
Both the All Blacks' win-loss ratio, as well as Joe Schmidt's renewed emphasis on strategy when arriving as the All Blacks' attack coach, meant Tuivasa-Sheck's time on the pitch during the Rugby Championship was confined to 10 minutes against the Wallabies, for the title decider. With a trophy on the line, Ian Foster was unable to pick Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue, David Havili or Quinn Tupaea; all of whom were injured, so put Jordie Barrett in at 12 to cover for Havili, as he did so the week prior after Tupaea and Havili were injured in the same game.
Ahead of the All Blacks' end-of-year test against Japan, Barrett was rested after playing every All Blacks test for the season, allowing Tuivasa-Sheck to start ahead of Havili and Lienert-Brown, who were both returning from injury off the bench. Japan however, gave the test everything and won the up-front battle, only to not quite execute the final pieces that would have allowed for the win. Tuivasa-Sheck and Braydon Ennor, his midfield parter, were both subbed off in this game, to signify their bad performances, while they were both put down to the All Blacks XV the following day.
An analysis uploaded on The Black Jersey on the All Blacks' narrow win over Japan. This video has been area-restricted and a VPN is required for New Zealand viewers to see the video.
Tuivasa-Sheck is unlikely to play a test again, after this lone start ended in a disappointment for him.
As Richie Mo'unga and Jordie Barrett are the first-choice players in their respective jerseys for the All Blacks, Ian Foster opted to move Barrett to 12 for tests against Wales and England, using their shared experience as key decision-makers for the team and shared experience playing for Canterbury as a 10-12 axis for 2016; in order to develop a backup to Havili at 12, that was not Tuivasa-Sheck.
Mo'unga and Havili remain the first-choice 10-12 axis for the All Blacks, while Havili and Rieko Ioane have the most shared minutes for Foster's All Blacks. Ioane is Tuivasa-Sheck's Blues teammate, but Tuivasa-Sheck had run out of time to gel with Mo'unga properly, following the Rugby Championship.
While Joe Schmidt could have used a Blues trio at 10, 12 and 13, having coached them at club level, Schmidt wanted to blend experience and club-level cohesion together in a perfect depth chart of the All Blacks' spine. The blending in of experience, wasn't suited to a cross-code athlete, who was inexperienced in the profession of rugby union altogether.
Ultimately, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who turned 30 years old on the day of writing this article, moved back to playing union far too late. While he has clearly established himself as an athlete with a good attitude to training, instincts are built over a period of years and even decades, not months. Dan Carter for example, received a goal-post for his backyard, before he'd even started high school, as a present from his father. Rieko Ioane, took the best part of two years to properly convert back into a centre, from 2020-2021.
Such kicking instincts required for a 12, were never going to be bought out of a league fullback within 18 months, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic wrecking Tuivasa-Sheck's access to game time with Auckland in 2021. While Tuivasa-Sheck is likely aware of his current role in union as a one-dimensional crash-ball runner, such a role has ended up coming down to his late entry back into union, contrasted to Sonny Bill Williams' debut for Toulon at 23 years old.
Tuivasa-Sheck's lack of success at test level, should also serve as a warning to the arrogance of some league converts who believe they can cross codes and become an overnight superstar. Sonny Bill Williams certainly wouldn't have been one upon arrival in the All Blacks, if not for the tutelage of Brad Thorn and his time with Toulon.
While the Tuivasa-Sheck experiment is almost certainly over, after Harry Plummer and Bryce Heem have been preferred in 2023; following Tuivasa-Sheck's second poor performance at Eden Park against the Crusaders, at least it hasn't done any huge damage.
A young Samoan kid who emigrated to New Zealand dreaming of becoming an All Black, only to end up captaining the Warriors, got to earn the black jersey of his dreams, three times. Even better, was that he managed to achieve that dream, without disrupting the team's overall progression. Tuivasa-Sheck only played 91 minutes of test rugby, but a series of 91 minutes that his young self, who came from nothing and attended Otahuhu College, would have been ecstatic to hear of.
Richie Mo'unga, David Havili and Rieko Ioane, did not have their progress as a backline formation halted, while injury to Quinn Tupaea and Jack Goodhue, can be covered by Anton Lienert-Brown and Jordie Barrett, who are both highly experienced players.
As for Tuivasa-Sheck, he may not have been the future All Black captain that comments sections suggested. But he certainly isn't the arrogant, selfish player, that felt entitled to a black jersey and a test side built around him. Tuivasa-Sheck's return to the Warriors will be a win-win for the All Blacks' combination-building, as well as his own bank account.
This was a roller-coaster story, but it should, injury permitting, give Tuivasa-Sheck a happy ending, as he returns to Mt Smart Stadium.