The rise and rise of Esava Ratugolea

June 08, 2018

Esava Ratugolea of the Cats marks with first touch on debut during the Round 1 AFL match between the Melbourne Demons and the Geelong Cats at the MCG in Melbourne, Sunday, March 25, 2018.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 25: Esava Ratugolea of the Cats is tackled by Michael Hibberd of the Demons during the 2018 AFL round 01 match between the Melbourne Demons and the Geelong Cats at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

For one painful moment in time, Cobram’s Esava Ratugolea’s debut AFL season was over.

Many commentators watching the horrific incident, seeing his leg bend under his body and clearly snap, even wondered if it was a career killer.

The Geelong rookie, 19, had floated in for a marking contest in the game against Carlton when he was knocked off balance mid-flight.

He hit the ground awkwardly and teammate Patrick Dangerfield landed on top of him, crushing not only his ankle and bones in his leg but potentially his season.

Ratugolea fractured his fibula and cracked his tibia in the incident.

‘‘I was in a lot of pain. I pretty much dislocated my ankle and when I did that I chipped my tibia as it fractured my fibula,’’ he said.

Seven screws and an inserted plate later, Ratugolea is hoping to be in a moon boot some time this week if everything goes to plan.

While the footage was sickening, the young Cat has announced post-surgery the prognosis is nowhere near as bad as many thought.

Including himself.

Ratugolea remains optimistic he is a chance of returning to the team before Geelong enters a likely finals campaign.

The 2017 Cobram-Barooga Junior Sportstar of the Year said he wanted to resume training in 10 weeks and is already looking forward to running.

‘‘I hate just sitting around doing nothing,’’ the frustrated big forward said.

‘‘If I do everything I can and everything goes my way, then I reckon I will be able to play again this season.’’

It wasn’t the excuse he was looking for, but the injury has given the teen sensation an unexpected chance to visit home for a week and catch up with family and friends.

And watch his old team Cobram Tigers play Rumbalara at the weekend.

As bad as the injury was, it was also further confirmation of Ratugolea’s on-field courage — and speed.

The forming pack was a long way from his position on the field, but the young gun had no hesitation in launching for the footy, knowing full well that was the major reason he cracked Geelong’s best 22 in the first place.

Before the bitter disappointment, Ratugolea was flying for the Cats, finding a niche as Geelong’s second key tall alongside Tom Hawkins as well as pinch-hitting in the ruck, with his exceptional athleticism making him a difficult match-up for opposition teams.

From starting his athletic endeavours as a goalkeeper for Cobram Roar, to trying his hand at Australian rules football at Yarroweyah and then Cobram to stay connected to his close mates at school, Ratugolea’s story is spellbinding.

Unlike most AFL players, he did not follow a traditional path to the big league. He did not start playing until he was 13, but he grasped the concept quickly, as if he was born to play the game.

His talent is undeniable but his self-belief, like a lot of young players finding their feet in the game, is inconsistent at this infant point of his career.

Ratugolea had made a seamless transition to his brave new world of professional sport. In the week before the injury he was focused on details such as the recovery period after matches, his evaluation of his own form, his mentors and the support he had been receiving from the wider football community.

But if Ratugolea harboured private doubts about how he would really go in the big league, his coach had none.

After copping a few serves for ‘‘resting’’ Ratugolea against Essendon, Chris Scott came out on AFL 360 a few weeks ago to make it clear the forward was ‘‘definitely’’ in the club’s best 22 players.

The teenager had not heard that statement and was clearly taken aback when it was read to him.

‘‘Wow, I didn’t hear that, but it certainly gives me a lot of confidence,’’ he said.

‘‘The more games I play, the more confident I’ll get and I’ll be able to make more of an impact for the team.’’

Ratugolea credited much of his whirlwind AFL start to fellow forwards Hawkins and Daniel Menzel for helping with his forward craft and knowledge of the game plan.

He also worked with forward line coach Corey Enright every second day to make improvements to his game.

But they’re not the only Cats having an impact on him.

‘‘I still have to pinch myself seeing them (Gary Ablett Jr, Joel Selwood and Dangerfield) on the footy field and seeing them in the locker room, but geez they’re great blokes,’’ Ratugolea said.

‘‘I really get along with them. You’d think so differently before coming to the club that they would be so much more different because they’re such stars of the game, but they’re just another bloke to me now.’’

The form he has shown in just his second year on Geelong’s list is made all the more remarkable by the fact he entered the AFL system extremely raw in terms of his football nous because of his late start.

Torn ligaments in his knee meant he missed the first third of his final Murray Bushrangers season, but when he returned, a spot had opened for him as the Bushrangers’ best players were all on Vic Country duties.

That block of games paved the way for his incredible ascent to AFL ranks as he not only cemented his spot in the TAC Cup side, but actually stood out in the pack after an eight-goal performance against Bendigo Pioneers.

Vic Country duties and the National Draft Combine followed and the rest is now history.

He spoke to nearly every club before the draft, an experience of overlapping meetings and phone calls he recalled as ‘‘draining and stressful’’.

Picked at No.43 in the national draft, Ratugolea was not expecting to hear his name called out by the Cats.

He was already half packed for, and resigned to, joining Adelaide as its interest was the most obvious.

‘‘When I was watching the draft I had my eye on pick 44 (Adelaide’s pick) that whole time,’’ he said.

‘‘I wasn’t concentrating and Geelong took me at 43, so I was pretty surprised.’’

Another defining moment in his short career came when the Cats faced the West Coast Eagles.

Having to shoulder the ruck load for most of the contest, Ratugolea had the opportunity to square off against one of his idols and the trailblazer for Fijians making it to the AFL — Nic Naitanui.

The two Fijians soaring for the football will be remembered as one 2018’s signature images, showcasing the diversity of the modern game.

‘‘That was pretty awesome. I’d always wanted to meet that bloke. Funnily enough, I reckon that was also my best game for the year and he was probably my hardest opponent as well,’’ Ratugolea said.

‘‘He sort of came over to me as I was walking off and said ‘‘well done, mate, good to see you out on the field’’.

‘‘He was really nice and after the game he put up an Instagram post of me and him in the ruck and he said some kind words in that.

‘‘It was a really special moment for me because I’ve looked up to him.’’

The biggest battle for Ratugolea before the injury had been adapting to the rigours of consistently playing AFL football.

‘‘The hardest part of it is the recovery and the impact it has on your body. It’s really high intensity stuff and after games you pull up so sore,’’ he said.

‘‘I have to be so diligent and do everything I can to get my body right week in, week out. We have injury clinic the day after the game and then recovery and it’s probably not until Wednesday my body starts to feel good again.’’

Off the field, Ratugolea lives with Cats Brandon Parfitt and Quinton Narkle in Geelong.

‘‘I love it,’’ he said.

‘‘I’d probably struggle to live in the city because I don’t like the busyness. Geelong is perfect, especially coming from Cobram — it’s not much of a change from Shepparton.’’

While his injury has come at a costly time in the context of Geelong’s season, the man known as ‘Sav’ only has to look at his 2017 season for inspiration to show he can bounce back.

‘‘I guess I was very annoyed with my season last year. I felt like I had a lot to prove but I just wasn’t able to because injuries were holding me back,’’ he said.

While his injury curse has tried to destroy his 2018 season, the young Cat will quickly look to push the reset button in 2019. But he will keep aiming for later this year.

It won’t be easy. But Ratugolea has never taken the simple route.

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