The Warriors’ pre-season has been dominated by speculation around what captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will do when his current contract expires at the end of 2018.
New Zealand Rugby and the Blues are reportedly tempting RTS with a code switch, while South Sydney, Wests Tigers and Gold Coast are three NRL clubs that have been mooted as eager suitors for the brilliant fullback.
Given the Warriors’ on-field struggles, many commentators are declaring it a foregone conclusion Tuivasa-Sheck will jump ship, under the bogus pretence that his career has gone backwards since returning home at the end of 2015.
The 24-year-old may very well decide to chase a Rugby World Cup dream in the 15-man game, or take up one of which are sure to be many attractive offers from an Australian NRL club. But if RTS does decide to exit Penrose, it will be for his own reasons – and nothing to do with the absurd, stereotype-driven rhetoric spouted on both sides of the Tasman in recent weeks and months.
Here’s a bit of perspective on the hysteria surrounding the biggest player recruitment/retention storyline of 2018:
RTS’s form in 2017 was actually outstanding
Tuivasa-Sheck’s supposed regression since linking with the Warriors was a recurring theme on FoxSports talk shows and Aussie journos’ Twitter feeds in 2017. The blue-chip fullback, they contended, had become another victim of the mythical career black hole that is joining the Warriors.
Granted, his highlights reel was nowhere near as spectacular as previous seasons at the high-flying Roosters – but under the circumstances, Tuivasa-Sheck was superb.
Firstly, it should be remembered (and was bizarrely overlooked) that he was coming back from an ACL injury, the worst a rugby league player can get and the most difficult to return from, suffered just seven games into his initial season with the Warriors.
Playing behind a pack that was routinely steamrolled week after week, most of his work with the ball was coming off the Warriors’ try-line, frequently taking it upon himself to make tough mid-set hit-ups to help his side out of trouble.
The opportunities to sniff around for offloads were scarce, due to the conservative approach employed by the Warriors last year. Lengthy injury layoffs to halves Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran – who played together just 12 times in 2017 – made for a disjointed year offensively for a fullback slotting into a new team. Yet Tuivasa-Sheck was still the team’s most effective attacking player.
The numbers back up the argument that RTS had a strong year: he finished fourth in the NRL for average run metres (181.4), while his tallies of tries (10), try assists (8) and line-breaks (16) were all top-five amongst the competition’s No.1s, and the only fullback to better his tackle-break count (106) was James Tedesco.
He was deservedly name the Warriors’ Player of the Year and finished equal-12th in the Dally M Medal with 17 votes. Billy Slater (20), Tedesco and Tom Trbojevic (both 18) were the only fullbacks to poll higher.
And all of this after taking on the captaincy role at the age of 23 in a team that only won seven games.
Electrifying at the World Cup before New Zealand dropped their bundle against Tonga and Fiji, Tuivasa-Sheck provided a timely reminder of what he can do when his team’s forwards get on top of their opposites, and he duly picked up the Kiwis’ Player of the Year award.
His world-beating form for the Roosters came in a false economy
Tuivasa-Sheck’s stint at the Warriors has been judged harshly against his breakout 2015 campaign with the Roosters, when he received a seemingly never-ending stream of plaudits.
In his first season as the Tricolours’ No.1 after the retirement of club legend Anthony Minichiello, the hot-stepping 21-year-old claimed the Dally M Fullback of the Year award, won the Rugby League Week Player of the Year gong, was nominated for the Golden Boot, and skyrocketed to fourth spot (after ranking No.76 the previous season) in Rugby League Week’s annual ‘100 Best Players in the World’ list.
Don’t get me wrong, he deserved all the wraps – but he was playing in the NRL’s dominant team, which claimed its third straight minor premiership. The Roosters boasted the biggest, baddest forward pack in the competition, ensuring the likes of Tuivasa-Sheck were getting the majority of their possessions on the front foot and at the advantage line.
RTS’s defensive workload was also lighter, making 2.4 tackles a game compared to 3.5 this season, and he had the luxury of combining with the stable, experienced and consistent trio of James Maloney, Mitchell Pearce and Jake Friend.
Given those inherent advantages – and the esteem his stellar 2015 season is held in – RTS’s stats weren’t that much better than his numbers for the Warriors last year: 27 games for 12 tries, 10 try-assists, 16 line-breaks, 174 tackle-breaks and an average of 216.4 running metres per game. He also polled 16 votes in the Dally M Medal, one less than in 2017.
A champion player should be a champion player anywhere
The most ludicrous argument being tendered is that Tuivasa-Sheck needs to leave the Warriors to ‘realise his potential’; apparently, the club’s lack of success is holding him back.
Was Cronulla legend Andrew Ettingshausen any less great because he played only three finals matches in the first 12 seasons of his career? Ditto Stacey Jones, who spent his entire 261-game premiership career with a generally more dysfunctional version of the Warriors? Kurt Gidley at the Knights? Nathan Merritt at Souths?
If RTS can only truly be a top-shelf player in a star-studded team already in premiership contention (and to be clear, I don’t believe that’s the case), then he’s not the marquee man everyone thought he was.
It’s partly a by-product of the NBA mentality, where the game’s megastars gravitate towards each other to maximise their chances of winning championships on stacked rosters, and players’ legacies are largely judged against how many rings they won. But that doesn’t translate to a more tribal, team-oriented sport like rugby league.
The greatest challenge – and potentially the greatest part of his legacy – lies at the Warriors
When I interviewed Roger for a Rugby League Week story soon after his arrival at the Warriors, he told me the following:
“It was a similar decision that I made in the first stage of moving out of Auckland – I had to get out of my comfort zone and see how good I was at Sydney Roosters. (I feel like) I’ve proven myself a little bit, but coming back home to Auckland I’m trying to prove myself again.
“I look at those achievements (from 2015) and can’t believe that I’ve got my name next to Johnathan Thurston (in the Golden Boot), that seems crazy. But that’s the whole reason for moving here, a new challenge, and see what kind of player I really am. To see if I can maintain it and back up that year and become even better.”
If playing for the All Blacks in a Rugby World Cup is an itch the former schoolboy union gun has to scratch, then inevitably New Zealand Rugby will win out in the RTS bidding war. And good luck to him.
But if he stays in league, leading the Warriors to their maiden title represents the biggest challenge – and achievement – available to him in the code. Even skippering the club to a finals return would be an enormous notch on his belt, and far greater than anything on offer with a rival NRL team.
The prospects of the NRL rivals chasing him are no better than the Warriors’
If the Warriors’ lack of success is supposedly a prime motivator behind Tuivasa-Sheck’s feelings of discontent at the club, why would he join the Rabbitohs, Tigers or Titans?
Souths are coming off back-to-back 12th-place finishes and have massive holes in their roster. The Tigers have been far bigger basket-case off the field than the Warriors and even less successful on it, with their finals drought also stretching back to 2011 and landing in the bottom four in four of their last five campaigns. Another club with a tumultuous recent history, the Titans have made the finals once in the past seven seasons and have two 14th-place finishes and a 15th since 2014.
If Roger wants more rings, it’s just as likely he’ll find them at the Warriors as those three battling outfits.
The notion that every recruit struggles at the Warriors is a myth
Midway through last season I sat in the press box at ANZ Stadium as the Warriors capitulated to Parramatta, biting my tongue until it was raw and bloody as the hometown journos cackled about the ongoing failure of Warriors recruits to deliver.
Sure, there’s been a few notable disappointments over the years: Dennis Betts, Matthew Ridge, Denan Kemp, Dane Nielsen, Todd Lowrie, Jayson Bukuya. But it’s only since the big-money gamble on Sam Tomkins back-fired that the Warriors have picked up an undeserved reputation as career poison (Issac Luke’s poor form over the past two seasons hasn’t helped, nor did Kieran Foran’s injury-hampered stay).
My answer to that is as follows: Jason Death, Robbie Mears, Kevin Campion, PJ Marsh, Richard Villasanti, Brent Webb, Ruben Wiki, Steve Price, Nathan Fien, Michael Witt, Brent Tate, Wade McKinnon, Micheal Luck, Jacob Lillyman, James Maloney, Nathan Friend – and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
All exceeded varying expectations to provide outstanding value to the Warriors.
Every club has had a multitude of recruits that for whatever reason didn’t fire; the Warriors haven’t been burned any worse than anyone else.
It’s not the end of the world if he leaves
Snaring Tuivasa-Sheck’s signature was a massive coup for the Warriors and it would be a significant blow if chooses to leave. But possessing a marquee fullback is not the be all and end all for the club.
The successful Warriors sides of seasons past have featured comparatively low-profile No.1s such as a twilight-years Ivan Cleary, a previously unknown Brent Webb, journeyman Wade McKinnon, makeshift Lance Hohaia and boom youngster Kevin Locke.
The Warriors boast accomplished fullbacks Peta Hiku, Gerard Beale, David Fusitu’a and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad on their books already should RTS leave and they decide not to chase another custodian, which would free up a big chunk of salary cap change to spend in other areas.