This is the story behind the step that took a shy Samoan boy from Ōtara to rugby league’s biggest stage as the New Zealand Warriors’ first ever Dally M Medal winner, and the person responsible for moulding this Warrior.

A father and son are silent as they loosen their ties and sink back into wide armchairs in their Sydney hotel room.

The 2018 Dally M Medal Awards has just wrapped up, and all the glitz and glamour of the event is spilling out onto the streets as rugby league’s best scatter to the various after-parties dotted across the city.

But the evening’s supreme award winner won’t be attending any of those. Instead, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is about a kilometre north where he sits in contemplative silence across from the only person he has ever sought the approval of.

It isn’t God-given talent or luck that took Roger to the top of his sport. His journey has been filled with highs, lows and hours upon hours of backyard drilling under the watchful eye of his own personal coach, his best friend, and his biggest influence - Dad.

While he does the obligatory pre and post match interviews, Roger would much rather be out on the field.

This is the longest single interview he has ever done since his professional career began in 2012.

THE EARLY YEARS

Fleet-footed Otara youngster, Jojo Vahaakolo-Fifita, wants to grow up and be just like his hero Tuivasa-Sheck.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck - RTS to his fans - was born on June 5th, 1993.

Growing up in New Zealand, most Kiwis have at one point or another found themselves with a ball under their arm, dashing side to side to avoid defenders. But, there are some who do that better than others.

In every class, there’s that kid who finished their spelling test first, that kid who consistently won cross country or the natural born Kapa Haka leader.

At Mayfield Primary School in Ōtara, 1999, when it came to picking sides for lunchtime rugby - Roger was always picked first.

He grew up in a little white house on Ferguson Rd in south Auckland with his parents, younger brother, and two older sisters. He loved his childhood, and looks back fondly on the time spent in the family home and the long summers playing outside with his siblings.

The kids would walk to their mother’s work at Lion Red in the school holidays as the company had a swimming pool onsite. “Man, that was the best,” Roger says with a smile. The four kids would plead with the security guard to sneak them in after hours - which he eventually did.

“We’d be there for hours man just going crazy in the pool, it was pretty flash.”

The Tuivasa-Sheck household was “normal as”, with both parents working fulltime and the four kids happy to entertain each other at home and work hard at school.

“I loved my life growing up in south Auckland, I really did. People always have stories of how rough life was and that but I really enjoyed my childhood.”

He had to share everything with his little brother, that was normal, and he never complained.

The sisters were the bosses of the house while mum and dad were at work and for the most part, “it was perfect”.

It was a home full of love and laughter, but perhaps surprisingly, by no means sports mad.

His father, Johnny Senior, was a club rugby player, and a pretty handy one at that. He was a hot-stepping winger, revered locally for his electric footwork and blinding pace off the mark.

He always hoped his children would gravitate toward his passion, but through the early years the softly spoken Samoan man never pushed sport on any of them.

“We loved sport but none of us were super into it early on, just wanted to play with our mates and that,” Roger says.

“Looking back I think Dad wanted us to find that spark ourselves rather than be forced or pushed into anything.”

Luckily for Johnny Senior - and, as it happens, all rugby league fans - his eldest son found that spark early.

Like many Auckland primary schools in the early 2000’s, tackle rugby was banned at Mayfield Primary. So, Roger and his younger brother Johnny would get to school early for a game of touch.

“But that never lasted long,” he says.

“Touch always turned into rugby and I would get put into detention pretty much every other day for tackling.”

Word quickly got back to mum Liesha, who made the life-altering decision to sign her sons up to the local rugby club.

From his first game, it was clear Roger was special, his brother Johnny recalls.

Never the biggest or fastest, but impossible to out-compete, Roger regularly “shut down” the local neighbourhood games of touch and bull rush.

“We’d all be yelling ‘oh Benji (Marshall)’ while trying to do some big step or flick pass, just being idiots and that,” Johnny says.

“But as soon as Rog came outside he just shut it down, he was always the best no matter where or who we were playing against. I used to hate trying to tackle that dude, he just went so hard.”

Both Tuivasa-Sheck boys had natural ability.

But Roger was “different” and looking back, Johnny recalls just how committed his brother was.

“You want to know where the step came from? Hours and hours and hours of practice man.

“Rog and Dad would be outside practising all day and all night, seriously. Those two would be out there just drilling and drilling until he got it right.”

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s brother Johnny put in the hard yards with him when young, practising footy for hours on end.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s brother Johnny put in the hard yards with him when young, practising footy for hours on end.

Johnny Snr coached his son’s East Tamaki sides from U9s. As well as both Tuivasa-Sheck boys, the side featured the two sons of former New Zealand sevens great, Eric Rush.

Needless to say, the team was pretty dominant for several seasons.

It didn’t take long for Roger to fall in love with competing - and winning. He made all the representative sides.

But, Roger stayed humble. Johnny Snr was old school, however, and never heaped praise on any of his kids despite both boys running in try after try, week after week.

He wasn’t overly critical either, just not one for too many pats on the back.

Roger was a very good young player, but by no means a rugby league prodigy.

The trademark step that has now placed him among rugby league’s all-time great outside backs wasn’t part of his game early on. He relied on grit and determination, and for the most part it worked, but ultimately he lacked genuine x-factor.

It took going to watch his father play when Roger was 12-years-old for the trademark step to start taking shape.

Hear what’s going on inside Roger’s head before he puts on ‘the step’.

“I vividly remember watching one of his (Dad’s) games and he was playing wing, right wing, and he got the ball with about 10 metres to work,” Roger says with a wry smile.

“He squared the guy up, ball in two hands and just put this big step on him. He went around him untouched to score.”

After the game, Roger ran up to us father and begged to be taught that step. The step.

“I think I called it a goose step back then, I said ‘please, please teach me’. He just smiled and honestly, from then, from that moment we were at it pretty much every day.”

Johnny Snr spoke Samoan and knew little English. Roger spoke English but knew little Samoan.

Teaching his son the art of the step couldn’t simply be told, it had to be shown.

The pair would arrive at rugby training early, every Tuesday and Thursday, to get in some one-on-one work. While the other kids would warm up with a game of touch, Roger would be off to the side with his father, working on his speed and perfecting his own version of his dad’s lethal left foot.

“I remember one time I got to training and I saw this sled sitting by where we train,” he says.

“Dad was a PT (personal trainer) by trade, he made me drag it up and down the field and all the kids started laughing cos it looked stupid, you know.

“I almost had a tear in my eye but he just kept saying ‘don’t be lazy, don’t be lazy forget about them’. The premier boys started arriving to train and I was so embarrassed but, looking back now that’s just one of many times where Dad really hammered home that we don’t quit.

"He was drilling in small things like that my whole life. Getting there early, last to leave and always work hard as soon as you pull the boots on. I carry his lessons with me to this day.”

The pair’s training wasn’t restricted to twice a week like the rest of his teammates. At home, Johnny Snr really put his son through his paces.

Old school weights and speed ladders would be set up in the backyard when Roger got home from school and the two would spend hours working on turning his step into something unique.

“I couldn’t play that tough run-it-straight style like my brother cos I was skinny like dad, so the step became my best friend as I got older, in order to beat my man.”

By the time high school rolled around, Roger was convinced he not only had what it took to make it as a rugby player, but that he could be one of the greats.

He was making all the rep teams, every year. But when he got to college, all of that changed.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been working on his trademark step since his teenage years when he played for the national schools champion team in 2011, Otahuhu College.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been working on his trademark step since his teenage years when he played for the national schools champion team in 2011, Otahuhu College.

There were more players. The competition was stiffer. And Roger was shunted into the background.

He was overlooked for the Auckland under 16s, under 17s and his school’s first XV for three years in a row, prompting the now humbled kid from Ōtara to rethink his life.

Rugby had always been it for Roger. That was his path. He and his father had worked so hard at it. But the road to the top was suddenly blocked.

He told his father he was doubting himself, but Johnny Snr refused to accept that. The pair kept up their home training regime, ramping up the intensity as the sessions grew longer and became harder with father pushing son daily to be the best player he could be.

In his later years at high school, that hard work paid off.

Roger excelled in the classroom and on the training paddock, he eventually broke into the Otahuhu College First XV. After an outstanding year at fullback for the little south Auckland school, he became the only player from his school to be selected in the New Zealand Schools national side.

And that’s where petrol was poured onto his burning desire to make it in the world of professional sports.

The side travelled to Australia for a tournament - for some of the players, it was their first time on a plane. They stayed in a hotel, trained at world class facilities and had food prepared for them.

“I remember sort of taking a moment just like ‘man, this crazy. Free food, new gears, free travel and all because I’m playing good footy’. That really sparked it for me,” he says.

The rugby season ended on a high, and the 17-year-old was looking forward to a long overdue break. That was until a group of schoolmates convinced him to give league a go.

“I first started playing league after rugby finished in my last year of school, just for something to do with the boys and I really enjoyed it,” he says.

Roger was a gifted rugby union player, but league was where his step really started to come to life.

Playing both codes at school, opposition teams would make the tactical decision to run the ball on the last from inside their own end, rather than kick the ball to the electric fullback.

Whenever Roger got the ball, the entire school would rise as one on the sidelines - knowing what was coming next.

Opposition players were left swiping at thin air, and bodies left face-down on the ground as the hotstepper from Ōtara showcased his father’s work for all to see.

The Warriors quickly saw Roger’s talents too - and he was soon picked for their youth academy while still at school.

That’s when life got busy.

Back then, in 2011, Roger would finish school at 3pm and race to train at the Warriors academy.

Two hours later, while the others headed home to ice the body and rest, he would dash across town to train with the Auckland Blues pre-academy squad, which he made off the back of his stellar rugby union campaign.

He’d arrive home at about 7pm but despite the rigorous training involved with being chased by both codes, the training with dad did not relent.

“On top of all that I was still training with my dad in the evenings, so I was knackered for a while there but that was where honestly I got my best work in,” he says.

By the end of that year he was the school’s best player, and as captain led Ōtahuhu to the national secondary schools competition.

He was the talk of the tournament. Peter O’Sullivan, a recruiter at the time for the Sydney Roosters, shoulder-tapped the rising star. He convinced Roger and his father to head across to Bondi and meet with the Roosters. Nothing formal, just a chat.

Then, “everything went crazy”.

THE NRL

The Roosters flew both father and son over to Sydney, where they were put up in a five-star hotel in Coogee - a long way from Ōtara.

“We had breakfast by the beach every day for the three or four days we were there. I remember thinking: ‘Man this is what I want to be able to do for my family, this is how they deserve to live’.”

By the end of October 2011, Roger made the “massive decision” to sign with the Roosters.

It’s hard for any kid to move away from home. It’s harder still when it means leaving a very close-knit family - and your lifetime coach.

At 18, Roger was suddenly all alone in a big city, in a foreign country, and a member of the NRL’s most high-profile club. He didn’t have dad around, there were no familiar school fields and on his first day at training, he walked into the gym alone. He was starstruck.

Established NRL players Braith Anasta, Mitchell Pearce and Todd Carney were there, getting through some pre-season work.

“I must’ve looked like a deer in headlights,” Roger says.

It was so different from the comfort of his father’s home gym, from where he knew where every blade of grass sat and where the weights were rust-free.

A legend of the game, Australia and NSW fullback Anthony Minichiello, spotted him wandering aimlessly and took Roger under his wing.

Roosters legend Antony Minichiello took RTS under his wing when he joined the club in 2011.

Roosters legend Antony Minichiello took RTS under his wing when he joined the club in 2011.

“I was so lucky when I got to the Roosters to have a guy like Anthony at the club, and as my mentor,” he says.

“He made it so easy for me. I was just a very, very shy kid from south Auckland when I got there, knowing nobody in Sydney and he was already a superstar and well-known around town.

“He let me just be his shadow for a few years there and was always willing to help me work on my game and answer questions. Zero ego.”

Whatever the superstar fullback was telling Roger, it worked.

He starred for the tri-colours’ under 20s side in 2012, scoring nine tries in 12 games. In round 21 of that season, he made his NRL debut. Fittingly, in his father’s favoured position of right wing.

The Roosters lost that one 36-16 to the Titans, but they had unearthed a future superstar.

“He was electric, right from the jump you could tell 'jeez this kid's got talent', that being said I played long enough to know talent doesn't always get you there,” Minichiello says.

Plenty of league players fall just as quickly as they rise, and too many become ‘what could have been’ stories, mostly due to lack of commitment, Minichiello says.

But the veteran could see Roger was different.

“He was really respectful and humble when he came into grade. Just a good kid and you could tell that right away.”

Anthony Minichiello was involved in the 2013 decision to give RTS a shot at fullback.

Anthony Minichiello was involved in the 2013 decision to give RTS a shot at fullback.

“Obviously we knew the speed, power and footwork were there from the get go, you could see that clear as day. But the best thing about Roger was he asked questions and constantly wanted to learn. That’s something I now know his old man drilled into him.”

The Roosters knew they had something special, and ahead of the 2013 season, coach Trent Robinson met with Minichiello to float an idea by him - one that would change the course of both his and his eventual successor’s playing careers.

The coach and captain sat and talked over a flat white about the plan for the season, as they did every year.

But this time, Robinson mentioned something Minichiello hadn’t seen done before.

The plan was for Minichiello to play in his customary fullback role, until the Roosters crossed the 40m line. Then in “good ball areas”, Roger would shift to the back and the veteran would slide to the wing.

It was a move that other senior players might have raised an eyebrow at, letting the young kid take the reins when it mattered most. But Minichiello says he was on board right away, knowing what a weapon Roger - and that step - could be.

“It worked out great. And I even crossed for a few more tries,” he says.

“That footwork comes from years and years of drilling with his old man in the backyard, he’s right up there with the best ever, honestly.

“The thing with Roger’s step is he doesn’t lose any speed. So it’s not a step to the left or right and then have to start again, there is so much power throughout the motion, combined with the fact he can do it off both feet, which sees him break so many tackles.”

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck would win the NRL premiership along with Sonny Bill Williams.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck would win the NRL premiership along with Sonny Bill Williams.

The 2013 positioning master stroke, coupled with the return of Sonny Bill Williams, saw the Roosters charge on to the NRL grand final, and win Roger his first premiership. He was just 20 years old.

He spent two more years in Bondi, carving a name for himself as one of the most electrifying players in the game, before signing on to return home and re-join the Warriors, in 2016.

THE DALLY M MEDAL

Roger’s journey from Ōtara to the game’s biggest stage, went full circle on September 26, 2018.

Since its inception in 1998, there have been 22 winners of the Dally M Medal, awarded to the NRL’s best player at season’s end.

In front of a room full of his peers, media and the biggest names in rugby league, Roger became the first Warrior to win the NRL’s supreme award.

He was overcome with emotion as a spine tingling haka was performed by his Warriors’ teammates Jazz Tevaga and Issac Luke. All those hours in the backyard, all the blood sweat and tears shed to get him to that moment began to bubble over.

The step had become such a lethal weapon that in round 15 of the 2018 season, Cowboys’ fullback Michael Morgan actually tore his bicep trying to stop it. It had propelled Roger to the highest of highs in rugby league.

On the night he won the supreme award, he left the stage to thunderous applause. But Roger made a beeline for one man. There was no need to zigzag this time.

Most players take their partners, or teammates as dates to the glamorous awards. But, Roger “of course” took his father.

“It was special man, that’s the only way I can describe it,” he said.

“To have him there meant the world to me. That was a moment we had both worked so hard for so, I was just so happy to have him there.”

Winning the NRL’s top individual award, the Dally M Medal, was a moment of glory shared between father and son.

Winning the NRL’s top individual award, the Dally M Medal, was a moment of glory shared between father and son.

The journey was complete.

An NRL premiership, test honours, captain of his beloved club and now recognised as the game’s best individual player. Job done. At 25-years-old.

So there they are, father and son sitting in their Sydney hotel room. Just sitting.

Reflecting on a journey forged through hard work and dedication.

Still, Johnny Snr says little.

Roger might be at the top of the game, but he’s not at the top of his game. Not yet. And Dad isn’t about to start heaping the praise on now.

The praise didn’t come when he was named player of the day in his second game of U9s, and it wasn’t about to happen at the Dally M awards.

“I didn’t need any of that. That moment, just me and dad sitting in the hotel afterwards is something I’ll forever treasure,” he says.

“But honestly after we went to bed and woke up the next day, it was back to business as usual. He was back on me to improve and be better. And I will be better.”

Words: Jackson Thomas

Visuals: Lawrence Smith, Getty Images, Photosport and Warriors.kiwi

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: John Hartevelt