Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

NRL: Future stars' talent easy for a top scout to spot

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has what it takes, and the Roosters are making it happen. Chris Rattue writes how the NRL super scouts are always on the sidelines looking for the next big league discovery.

Peter O'Sullivan saw Greg Inglis as a 15-year-old and says he was 'the most gifted athlete I've ever come across'. He went on to play for the Rabbitohs. Photo / Getty Images
Peter O'Sullivan saw Greg Inglis as a 15-year-old and says he was 'the most gifted athlete I've ever come across'. He went on to play for the Rabbitohs. Photo / Getty Images

Peter O'Sullivan is happy to step out of the shadows, but his players do the best talking for him.

O'Sullivan is an NRL super scout. "His" players, the ones on top of O'Sullivan's calling card, are Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Israel Folau.

They are his three star discoveries, from his days with the Melbourne Storm and proof that he has that special eye for talent spotting and a knack for getting a signature on the line.

O'Sullivan, now at the Sydney Roosters, has nailed another potential superstar, this time from New Zealand. The 19-year-old Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, a rugby convert, made the NRL first grade side this year, his first league season. The magical feet that O'Sullivan first saw in colourful boots have now caught everyone else's eye.

"I was blessed with Roger," says O'Sullivan, in an assured, low-key voice.

The 46-year-old O'Sullivan was a lower grade playmaker with St George and Balmain who was scouted, as a coach, by the Dragons in days when the total football staff at a club might number three or four. He did a bit of everything. There were mentors, including his football coach brother, but when pushed, O'Sullivan quietly says any talent-spotting ability might be "innate".

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does O'Sullivan happen to be in the right places, or does his eye for the best talent turn ordinary places into the right ones?

In the case of Tuivasa-Sheck, the kid from Otara, O'Sullivan's intuition got him into the game quick enough to snatch the youngster away from the pack. The occasion was the national secondary schools tournament at Papakura's Bruce Pulman Park in September last year.

The Apia-born Tuivasa-Sheck, from Otahuhu College, was an established young rugby star who had played for the national schools side. Disappointed that the rugby season had ended, he lined up for his school league team and immediately liked the flow of the new game. Tuivasa-Sheck was hardly a state secret, though, and the Warriors were among those in the hunt.

"The Warriors offered a great deal but the Roosters had a bit more for me, a package deal for my family," Tuivasa-Sheck says.

His manager, Bruce Sharrock, says there were five NRL clubs in the frame.

There have been a number of stories and reasons given about why Tuivasa-Sheck chose the Roosters, including the good impression Coogee made on him after being walked around Roosters country by O'Sullivan.

Tuivasa-Sheck doesn't mention this when the Herald calls. Instead, he points to the Roosters package which included being close to a good university, finding a school for his younger brother and "getting him into the sporting system", and finding jobs for his sisters and parents.

Tuivasa-Sheck said: "I was surprised at the lengths the club would go to - but I have to thank my manager who was really fighting for me, to get these things."

He was hurtling in unexpected directions, after starting last year happy with the future promised by a place in the Auckland Blues academy.

"Everything was bouncing around in my head. The Roosters sounded a very good idea, but I had so much doubt, always thinking 'is this the right decision or is this going to be a waste'? I was so nervous leaving all my family and friends behind," he says.

This is another story for the pile. A good 20 years ago, a tough young Glenora footballer named Jarrod McCracken had shunned senior Auckland football to help smooth his way into the Aussie top grade via New South Wales country football.

McCracken became one of the best. Around this time, another young man named Tony Kemp had beaten the New Zealand Rugby League in court, not wanting to quit Newcastle as demanded by the terms of the NZRL's rookie scheme. Kemp - now an NZRL bigwig - won on a restraint of trade ruling.

The free market now rules, but an easier path doesn't always make it easier for young men leaving home, going to a new country. For instance, the Warriors' first grade side this year included Carlos Tuimavave, who got homesick at the Canterbury Bulldogs and grabbed his chance to return.

O'Sullivan not only has to find the players, but persuade them in his club's direction. He likes to act alone, away from the scout "circus", by picking a target, and striking quickly. New Zealand is fertile ground.

"In league, if you are good enough you are old enough. Rugby union likes bringing people through a system," he says. "The number of New Zealanders going to the NRL will only increase. "New Zealand lads are built for our game - they're explosive, athletic, skilful. Over the years their endurance levels have got better."

A day in Wellington is one he will never forget, after spotting a big, frizzy-haired kid smashing his New South Wales country opposite in the curtainraiser to a top-level junior clash. O'Sullivan gave an award to the smashed-up kid, praising him for never giving up.

"Will you sign me, Mr O'Sullivan?" the bruised and battered one asked.

"No, I'm signing the kid who kept belting you," the famous scout replied. The NRL journey for Sam Tagataese, now at the Sharks, was under way.

Tuivasa-Sheck has come to grips with life over the ditch, dealing with paperwork, flatting with two young Brisbane players he didn't know, dealing with a new city. His family are on the way.

O'Sullivan, meanwhile, will be moving around, here and there, watching football, usually dressed in mufti rather than club colours, looking for that one special thing in a player, and ignoring other voices. As his attention was grabbed by Tuivasa-Sheck in Papakura last year, one such voice sidled up to him.

"Look at the centre for Otahuhu, he's the best player in the tournament," said the voice.

O'Sullivan replied: "He's not even the best player in his team."

While on the road, the Aussie scouts will meet for a drink.

"There will be a few show and goes," says O'Sullivan. "It's more about withholding what you really think than telling lies."

Another Aussie scout recounts for the Herald being taught by a wise old dog to cover the tracks when necessary by publicly talking to a decoy player. On one occasion at least, this led to a decoy getting a contract.

The Warriors' John Ackland recalls a youngster in his club's system who kept stalling on a bog-standard $3000 start-up contract. Finally, it emerged that his "manager" was playing hardball. The manager turned out to be a forklift operator at the warehouse where the young player worked.

"There were loads of people around who thought they could make it big as managers," Ackland recalls. Finding the talent is one thing, securing it another.

So what did O'Sullivan see in the 15-year-old Inglis, at a junior tournament match at Port Macquarie on the northern coast of New South Wales, and what happened next?

"He just glided - the most gifted athlete I've ever come across. No other club was chasing him," O'Sullivan recalls.

He returned to tiny Macksville a few days later, meeting Inglis, his mother and grandmother. Inglis was very keen and it was, he says, an easy signing.

Peter O'Sullivan has the eye. But maybe there's also something in that voice.

Yesterday

The league pioneers who headed west with big dreams.

- NZ Herald

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