The honesty was refreshing, transparency encouraging. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck understands the extent of the challenge he’s about to dive face-first into as New Zealand’s latest code-hopping rugby recruit, but is clearly energized by his late-career reinvention.
And the vocabulary was as impressive as the reflections when the new Blues signing, and All Black wannabe, spoke to reporters for the first time since becoming a fulltime rugby player at HQ on Thursday afternoon. His use of the word “discombobulating” might have been his most impressive act of an encouraging first dab into the media spotlight as a XVs exponent.
With new coach Leon MacDonald sitting alongside the man earmarked to wear the Blues No 12 jersey this Super Rugby season, Tuivasa-Sheck ticked a lot of boxes as he spoke about his transition back to the code he last played as a schoolboy at Otahuhu College, and the difficulties he faces fashioning his game to meet those challenges. If attitude is half the battle, this Kiwi sporting star appears well on the way to a successful transition.
Yes, the circumstances have been challenging. He was supposed to have a full NPC campaign with Auckland to help with the conversion, but had that plucked from his grasp by the pandemic. Instead he’s had to make do with private training sessions alongside comeback All Black Caleb Clarke (“I saw on Insta he was training and reached out … I’ve learned a lot”) and an elongated pre-season with the Blues.
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He is still waiting to play his first game of rugby – set to come in the Blues’ pre-season opener against the Hurricanes in Takapuna next Saturday – and has not tucked an oval ball under his arm in anger since his final outing for the Warriors last july. It’s been a long wait, even for a man as focused and determined as this 28-year-old NRL and Kiwis icon.
But, no, he doesn’t consider himself a rugby player. Just yet.
“It’s too early,” he says in a jaunty press conference introduction. “I keep telling myself it’s not until I lace up and run out in the colors it’s going to feel official. At the moment I feel like a rookie and I’m learning with everyone around me.”
The most challenging aspect of his new vocation, he says, is understanding his role. “It’s a tough gig because one week I feel, ‘OK, I’m starting to get it’, then the next I’m out of position. You’ve got to keep learning as you go. And creating the connections around me. As a midfielder you’ve got to connect with the guys inside and out, and I’ve got to constantly adapt”.
then came that word, when he was asked about the biggest difference between codes.
“What’s still discombobulating to me is the constant change in pictures,” he ruminated. “In high school, if someone was in front, OK, you attack that guy. [Now] when you look back up it’s a whole new picture. The level has gone up, and with a lot of changing pictures.”
Tuivasa-Sheck would enlighten us more on the transition between such a structured code as league and the organized chaos that is union.
“When I’m watching from afar, you know there’s a ruck there, but to me it looks like a mess, just boys smashing in. But there’s actually some key factors and technique stuff they try to do in there … those are the little things I’m trying to learn.”
In terms of expectations on himself, he’s keeping those as real as he can. “I have good people around me as sounding boards. Of course I want to put my best foot forward and tick the boxes from the start. But it’s been a while since I played rugby. There’s stuff I can pick up at training but when it comes to games, it’s a whole new page.”
The former Warriors and Kiwis captain revealed he’s aiming to lift his playing weight from 94-95kg in league to 98-99kg. “There are a lot of cheetahs out there and a few hippopotamuses – so I’ve got to adapt to different shapes.”
He is also not about to step on anyone’s toes, with the All Blacks on the verge of joining the fray. He sees himself as a “new guy”, a follower and not yet a leader, and says it’s on him to establish the connections he needs to.
He’s also trying hard not to waste energy thinking about debuts, even if his first Super Rugby match proper seems certain to be at the Mount Smart ground he knows so well.
“I’m trying to learn as much as I can, but I don’t feel like I’m a Blues player just yet, I want to make it official by getting on the field and earning the boys’ respect first.”
In terms of expectations for next week and beyond, they’re simple: “Just trying to get my role right, to be in the right position to add value to the players around me, and not be a barrier so I’m stopping plays because I’m in the wrong position.”
Someone wondered what a successful season might look like come July?
“I don’t have that answer,” he said with a smile. “It’s just head down, go to work, and make myself official – earn the coaches’ respect by getting that jersey to play in a Super game.”
Not so much discombobulated, as fiercely focused.