Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is set to start 2021 at the Blues, and the Rugby World waits anxiously to see whether he can translate his talents from the NRL to the fifteen man game. Some before him have, some have not. Think of the trophy cabinet of New Zealand legend Brad Thorn, who won everything there was to win both in Union and League. Equally, a former teammate of Sheck, Sonny Bill Williams, who began his professional rugby journey as an 18 year old League player but went on to win two World Cups as an All Black, represent the New Zealand Sevens team at the Olympics and claim a Super Rugby title before eventually returning to the NRL at 35 years old.
Williams and Thorn are two of only four players to have ever won an NRL and Super Rugby title, and these are just two trophies in cabinets that host silverware from Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Both Williams and Thorn were integral to the All Black dominance of the last 20 years, albeit in different ways. The pair added necessary stardom to positions where the All Blacks were stretched thin. Thorn for years became the incumbent Number 4 Lock, with nobody coming near his quality until the emergence of Brodie Retallick. At centre, Sonny Bill Williams changed the way Rugby Union was played and gave the All Blacks an attacking dynamic that perhaps only became prevalent in other sides three or four years after Williams first hit the Union circuit. He also covered and complimented Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith in a way that no other back in New Zealand could at the time.
All Black success was largely enhanced by the ability of the two of these players to adapt to their adopted code. This is not the case for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Benji Marshall commanded intrigue and attention when the Blues contracted him in 2014, but left after seven Super Rugby appearances without a sound. While there was disappointment from fans, and most probably coaches, Marshall’s inability was insignificant. The All Blacks had Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett at flyhalf, they had Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and Nehe Milner-Skudder at fullback, and after those players they still had options better than Marshall. His Union success would make no notable difference to All Black rugby, as will be the case for Sheck.
The All Blacks post-Hansen lack very clearly in one set of positions and it is not the back three, where Sheck, who played Fullback for his league career, is expected to start. The problem is the back three of their pack. Not a single New Zealand loose forward would make a World XV, nor would they make the bench or be called up to an extended squad. When the All Blacks lost, one by one, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read, they lost a unit that gave them the physical presence and grit to compliment their poise and grace.
For a long time the All Blacks have, inexplicably, been able to dominate World Rugby with a pack that effectively only boasted eight competitive starting players. They had a cycle of world class props and locks, who upon expiry were somehow replaced with an equally impressive new set of youngsters. Much like the South African scrum half circumstance of Joost van der Westhuizen and Fourie Du Preez.
But New Zealand simply have not lucked out in their new loose trio. Sam Cane, groomed from 2012 to be the next McCaw, has been a solid servant to All Black rugby but would not get a look into a Springbok or England pack. Ardie Savea is explosive and electric, and can add impact from the bench and be brilliant against lower ranking sides, but comes up short against the big number 7s that dominate the Northern Hemisphere, South Africa and Argentina. Akira Ioane had promise, but has not cracked on at the highest level, Steven Luatua was a special talent lost to laziness and a foreign contract, Jordi Barrett is not a flank and Liam Squire has been a huge loss to New Zealand rugby through his illness and injury battles while Vaea Fifita for years has blown hot and cold. Aside from the Mo’unga/Barrett conundrum at flyhalf, New Zealand’s lack of loose forwards is one of the main reasons that since being bullied out of the World Cup by a brutal English pack, they have not looked the force of old.
So while Tuivasa-Sheck, who is an extraordinary talent, will add to the conveyer belt of fullbacks and wingers that have allowed New Zealand to year in, year out boast the best back three in the world, he solves no intrinsic problem in the All Blacks set up. Sheck’s success will make for beautiful fan viewing, it will make for fierce competition within New Zealand and it will add to the welcomed selection headache All Black coaches have always faced with wingers and fullbacks. But he will not make a marked difference to the holes that exist in New Zealand rugby, because by nature of his position he simply cannot.
*NOTE: The article focuses on the All Blacks and league converts in recent years and is not one that outlines the success of league converts for other countries like Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuquiri, Matt Rogers and Israel Folau (Kangaroos to Wallabies) and Jason Robinson (Great Britain to England).