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The Prodigal Son.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is back!

The Prodigal Son.

Jun 5, 2024 Sport

There was a sense of relief when Roger Tuivasa-Sheck faced the media for the first time back as a Warrior. At least, it was a lot happier than the last occasion he was in front of the cameras, in July last year, when he made it clear his rugby union career was over after only two seasons.

Standing in front of a dozen microphones and an intrigued group of journalists last December, he uttered the words the Warriors were counting on him to say. “It feels like home,” he said, before the inevitable question about how he was readjusting to the rigours of rugby league. “I’m sore. I definitely forgot about the rugby league pre-seasons. It’s intense, it’s tough. We go from a field session to a speed session to a wrestling session — it’s a lot for just one day. And I’m not getting any younger.”

Tuivasa-Sheck is now 31, not exactly geriatric by high-level rugby standards, but no spring chicken either. He’s about the age when players start thinking about how to close out their careers, and had it not been for a conversation over a coffee with a couple of old friends, that reflection would have seen Tuivasa-Sheck in Japan right now. “I called Jazz [Tavaga] and Tohu [Harris]. I sat down and said, ‘Do I just go, take off to Japan… or do I come back? Is there something there [at the Warriors]?’ And they said, ‘Bro, there’s something here’. That got me excited.”

So what’s he doing back at Mt Smart? Quite simply, Tuivasa-Sheck’s desire for another National Rugby League premiership overrode that of getting a cushy ride in Japan alongside his former All Black teammates. “I don’t think they fluked it last year,” he says when asked about the Warriors’ dream run to an NRL preliminary final in 2023. “No one’s trying to hide from what’s in front of them. Everyone here’s applying themselves and that’s what I’m enjoying.”

Tuivasa-Sheck claims he enjoyed last season with the Blues, but to those looking closely, his frustration was evident. He’d been the talk of the town after announcing his sensational code switch in 2021, moving to represent the city he grew up in after being a schoolboy star in both codes before cracking the NRL a decade earlier with the Sydney Roosters.

He joined another dual-code star, Sonny Bill Williams, won a premiership in his first full season and was named in the NRL’s team of the year. When he came home to the Warriors in 2016, Tuivasa-Sheck became the club’s biggest signing in years, and brought home its first Dally M player of the year award in 2018.

But that personal success didn’t transfer to the Warriors, whose trophy shelves remain untested. Then, the team’s temporary relocation to Australia for 2020 thanks to Covid made the switch to rugby union seem like a good idea. “It’s a tough gig,” he said after joining the Blues. “I just 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. You just keep learning as you go and probably creating the connections around me.”

It’s not that Tuivasa-Sheck was a bad rugby player — he just wasn’t spectacular. It didn’t help that the Blues’ idea of where to play him differed from the conventional wisdom: at second five rather than in the back three, where he’d spent his league career. Instead of being a highlight, he was a tradesman, trucking the ball up with no room to use his famed sidestep in the cramped confines of union.

Still, it was good enough to get picked for the All Blacks, although, again, it wasn’t at quite the point everyone thought it would happen. Instead of having a season of Super Rugby and the National Provincial Championship to get him up to speed before going on an end-of-year tour and having his opposition handpicked for him, Tuivasa-Sheck was chucked in the deepest end possible: coming on as a sub in a lost-cause test match on the way to a historic home series loss to Ireland. It was about the worst way to make a test debut.

Tuivasa-Sheck did make it on to the end-of-year tour in 2022, making his only test start against Japan in Tokyo, but even that didn’t go according to plan. Coach Ian Foster rolled out a C team and they barely escaped embarrassment with a 38–31 win, with Tuivasa-Sheck contributing little. It was about then the talk started circulating about a return to league, which eventuated in due course. “With Roger, you are not just buying a top player,” said a source inside the Warriors at the time of his re-signing. “You are getting someone that adds to your culture.”

It’s fair to say Warriors coach Andrew Webster is pretty happy to have him back. Ironically, he will play his new recruit at centre rather than wing or fullback. “Obviously he’s not at fullback, unless it was maybe third choice. We want him to focus on centre, maybe even wing,” Webster said last December. 

“I threw all the outside backs in a room the other day and said, ‘Boys, it’s yours to go after here.’ Someone is going to be sitting on the sideline… They should be competing and I put a few of them on their toes. It’s not about Rog, although he wants to win for the town he’s from. He’s got to do it with other people around him and he can make them better,” Webster explained. It’s pretty safe to say, however, that Tuivasa-Sheck will not be one of those sitting on the sideline.

Then there’s the fact that Tuivasa-Sheck has rejoined the side as it rides perhaps its highest wave of popularity since its inception almost three decades ago. To put things in perspective: his first outing in a pre-season game in Christchurch was in front of a sold-out crowd. The Warriors’ home opener against the Sharks was also close to full, not just thanks to the team’s success but also its ability to tap into what it means to be a Warriors fan.

That’s where the Up the Wahs vibe came from, and the packed stands and constant coverage is about as far away as Tuivasa-Sheck can get from where he finished his rugby union career — slogging it out in a forgotten NPC competition on what was little more than a club ground in St Johns. 

So that’s why it feels like he’s come home, to be a part of the club which is letting its stars shine brightly. “I’m just a kid trying to learn as much as I can again,” he said enthusiastically last December. And like any kid into footy in Auckland right now, it was almost as if he was visualising lifting the NRL trophy there and then.

This story was published in Metro N°442.
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In the Autumn 2024 issue of Metro we celebrate the best of Tāmaki Makaurau — 100 great things about life in Auckland, including our favourite florist, furniture store, cocktail, basketball court, tree, make-out spot, influencer, and psychic. The issue also includes the Metro Wine Awards, the battle over music technology company Serato, the end of The Pantograph Punch, the Billy Apple archives, a visit to Armenia, viral indie musician Lontalius, the state of fine dining, and the time we bombed West Auckland to kill a moth. Plus restaurants, movies, politics, astrology, and more.

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