Photography Stephen Langdon
Apia-born, Ōtāra-raised Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is just 23. But the new New Zealand Vodafone Warriors captain already has a lot on his plate.
Not any more. The Warriors’ new captain has a home in Meadowbank, not far from the gym where his father Johnny once was a personal trainer. “I grew up opposite Ferguson Intermediate in Ōtāra and my dad used to work at the Genesis Gym,” he says. “I used to drive there with him and on the way we’d be like, ‘Man, these are flash houses’. Five years later it’s crazy to think that I live here now. And every time my dad comes back we always have a moment when we’re driving through, just thinking.”
Just thinking. That’s the Tuivasa-Sheck no team-sheet or stats list could ever explain. They might show the number on his back or how many tries he’s scored, but never how far he’s come. And you don’t measure the distance from Ferguson Road in just kilometres.
Tuivasa-Sheck had arrived after four years at Bondi Junction but, unlike other high profile, high-priced transplants from Australia, his was less a relocation than a return. His was hyped as one of the best signings in Warriors history and you can understand why. He’d cost a lot of money – more than $800,000 a season is where the best guesswork lay.
But more than that, he was a 22-year-old proven performer with solid roots in the city and leadership potential. They were buying the future. “It wasn’t about the money,” he insists. “It was never about the money. I just wanted to look after my family. Make sure they had a house to live in." Yet within weeks the Warriors’ expensive investment was sidelined after surgery on a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Injury is a part of professional sport, and Tuivasa-Sheck, who’d been able to walk from the field, had imagined a couple of week’s rehab, followed by a fast return to the game.
Within seconds of sitting down with the surgeon and the club physiotherapist, his year was over. “I sat down and he goes, ‘Yeah you’ve done your ACL. We’ll have to schedule your operation and then your rehab’. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh when do I play?’ And the surgeon looked at our physio and they looked back at me and he said, ‘Oh sorry son, you’re out for the year’.
“I got quite emotional. The dramatic part of me started thinking, ‘How am I going to pay off my family’s place? Am I going to have to start looking for the next thing?’ That was the emotional part for me.”
When we call, Rush is dealing with a shoplifter at his Kaikohe New World, but he sounds like he would always find the time to talk about the talented kid from the old neighbourhood. “We all lived in Ōtāra and I used to take my boys up to East Tāmaki Rugby Club. The first time I saw Roger play, it would have been the under-sevens or under-eights I think. You could see things in him even then. Oh, he was a talent. There’s no doubt about that. But there was always a bit more to him than that.”
That “bit more?”
“He was never a loud boy. He was always very much the lead-by-example type. That’s going to come in handy.”
When things are going badly, even the most professionally run club can leak worse than the Trump White House. So it says something for the ship that coach Stephen Kearney is steering that, even though the Warriors have been perennial under-achievers, Tuivasa-Sheck’s elevation to the captaincy still managed to surprise. Even the new captain himself.
“At the end of the day he [Kearney] asked me to step into his office and in my head I’m thinking, ‘Oh I think he’s going to ask if I want to be in the leadership group. I think I made the leadership group’.
“Then he started going on about ‘I know the boys really connect with you. I know everyone has high respect for [former captain] Simon Mannering but we both know Simon needs that one other person because he’s not comfortable in the main role’.
“So then I start thinking, he wants me to be vice-captain. And I’m just sitting there like, ‘Wow, okay. vice-captain’.”
Even then, sitting in the coach’s office, in which the only two subjects up for discussion are leadership and Tuivasa-Sheck himself, he still didn’t get it. Until Kearney hit him with the punchline.
“But we both know Simon isn’t really comfortable with the job,” Kearney told him. “And we both look at you as someone who can take on the main role.”
“And I was just like, ‘What are you asking?’ I couldn’t even say it to myself. I didn’t believe he was asking me to captain the side. I was just blown away.”
On the other side of the Southern Motorway from Ōtāra, Ōtāhuhu College has been home to some of the great names in New Zealand rugby league. Olsen Filipaina went there. So too, Ali Lauiti’iti and a smattering of Ropatis (Joe, Tea and Iva).
And it’s where, in 2011, Tuivasa-Sheck was forced into the kind of decision familiar to only the most gifted; that most New Zealand of dilemmas: rugby? Or league? Complicating the issue was that he was brilliant at both.
A member of the Ōtāhuhu College First XV, he went on to play for the New Zealand Secondary Schools – a team that was led by current All Black Ardie Savea. But then a horrible thing happened. The rugby season ended.
He laughs about it now. “My dad used to really get frustrated with me. I was playing First XV right up until the end of the season. But our season ended and there was a national tournament for league, so I jumped in and played that.”
“Played” is one way of putting it. Being the outstanding player in the Ōtāhuhu College team which won the tournament is another. Yet in no small way, the school’s success steered Tuivasa-Sheck away from rugby for good. “It was tough for me, because my dad’s a rugby man at heart. But I just felt like every time I played league, I performed well.”
You can imagine it can’t you? Talented kid. Rising star. World at his feet. And smart enough to know he needed someone to help him navigate the muddy waters and the sharks. “I needed a manager, so my dad went out and found [Esportif’s] Bruce Sharrock. Eventually my dad was like, ‘What do you want to play? Rugby or rugby league?’ Because he felt like it was getting to the business end and it was time for me to choose a path.
“So we had a meeting with Bruce, and when the question came up, I was so young and giggly about it and I sort of put my head down and go, ‘Oh I want to play league.’ And I looked at my dad thinking that he’d be disappointed, but he wasn’t. He was so happy. Happy because it was my decision.”
Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck is still a personal trainer and lives in Sydney – living in a house made possible by his son. It’s a big house and it needs to be; home also to Roger’s mother Lisha, sisters Krystal and Shirley and little brother Johnny, a rising star at the Roosters. That contract, however large, is making a difference on both sides of the Tasman.
Tuivasa-Sheck knows in his heart that this year he and his team could be on the verge of something truly special, something Warriors fans no longer dare to even say out loud. There’s still work to do, but after all those years away he’s clearly heading somewhere. But neither has he forgotten where he’s from.