Esava Ratugolea is a near certainty to play AFL next year but if circumstances were different he would be excelling at another football code.
Ratugolea, 18, was born in Griffith, NSW, but a move to Cobram when he was six would ignite a passion for Aussie Rules.
Had he remained in the northern state, the Murray Bushrangers’ power forward would just as likely be gearing up for a rugby league career.
‘‘As a kid I always wanted to be a rugby league star. I wanted to get in there and play in the NRL, but making the move to Victoria there was really no opportunity to play rugby around here,’’ he said.
‘‘It was mainly soccer and footy, so I ended up playing both of them until I found the right sport for me which was footy.’’
Deciding between football and soccer took its toll, so much so that Ratugolea even took a year out from playing any sport.
‘‘In 2013 I broke my arm on the first day of pre-season and in 2012 I didn’t want to play sport at all. I was confused about what I wanted to do with soccer or footy so I just gave it a rest and came back in 2014 ... and I’m here now,’’ he said.
‘‘I just pretty much wish I started footy a lot earlier.’’
Ratugolea only started playing AFL in Year 7 when friends at Cobram Secondary College encouraged him to play for Yarroweyah in the Picola District Football League.
The Grasshoppers needed a ruckman and a forward and in stepped the athletic talent to fill the gap. Ratugolea is now playing in just his fourth full year of Aussie Rules, but facing the realistic prospect of being drafted.
With Ratugolea’s family immigrating from Fiji to Australia before his birth, it was entirely left to him to choose a football team to follow.
‘‘As a kid I always grew up following the Sydney Swans. I think it was just because the first ever player I knew in the AFL was Adam Goodes,’’ he said.
‘‘I think it was one of those Smith’s chips packets that had footy cards and I opened one and it had Adam Goodes in it. It was him and Matthew Pavlich as well that I used to see and that’s pretty much how I ended up following that team the whole time.’’
Ratugolea lives with his grandmother Kiti, while his mother Kelly and four younger siblings live around the corner.
They have embraced the Australian sport, slowly coming to terms with the rules.
‘‘I’ve always been brought up in a rugby family because it’s the main sport in Fiji, so I grew up watching rugby union and rugby league. When I first picked up the footy they didn’t really know much about the sport, but they just tried to understand it as much as they could, they’re getting there,’’ Ratugolea said.
‘‘They know a lot more than they did when I first started which is good, but they’re learning still.’’
Ratugolea’s grandmother has adorned the walls of their Cobram flat with pictures of all her grandchildren, with her eldest grandson’s football achievements taking up plenty of space.
The framed Vic Country team photo has Ratugolea photoshopped in.
He was a late inclusion after thinking he had missed the opportunity to join the squad.
He tore the meniscus of his left knee after landing awkwardly in a practice match for Cobram seniors.
But Ratugolea recovered remarkably quickly from the injury, with doctors impressed when he started running in the third week of his recovery, playing a game the following week.
He thought the injury had robbed him of the chance to compete in the under-18 championships, a highlight for many draft contenders.
‘‘The main let down of the year was not getting the chance to try out for Vic Country. The main goal going into the year was to try out for Vic Country and see how I go, so when I missed the whole try-outs I was pretty devastated, and when I got the call up I was pretty happy,’’ he said.
Ratugolea made a significant impact in his third game for the Murray Bushrangers after returning from the torn meniscus, forcing national selectors to take notice of him.
Playing against Bendigo in round 10, he bagged eight goals, receiving a call from Vic Country talent manager Leon Harris telling him to pack his bags and join the team in Melbourne.
Ratugolea revelled in the experience of playing against the best teenagers in the country, running onto Etihad Stadium and seeing his face on the big screen.
Having kicked 15 goals in his first four games with the Bushies this year, he failed to make an impact on the scoreboard for the rest of the season.
But he was spending more time in the ruck, sharing duties with Albury’s Max Lynch.
With a high leap and an athletic frame, Ratugolea keeps a keen eye on players with a similar build to him.
‘‘I always loved watching Matthew Pavlich in his prime kicking all the big goals. I used to always jump on the internet and try and watch as many highlights of him as I could,’’ he said.
‘‘When I watched him that was probably when I reckon I decided I wanted to play footy, I wanted to be like that.
‘‘I really love watching Buddy Franklin, Joey Daniher — the taller more athletic forwards and in terms of ruckmen, Nic Naitanui and Max Gawn,’’ Ratugolea said.
As an athletic player with a Fijian background and long dark locks, Ratugolea constantly draws comparisons to the West Coast star.
‘‘All the time pretty much. I’ve gotten used to it already,’’ he said with a smile.
Spending time with family is an important part of Ratugolea’s life outside of football.
The oldest of five siblings — 15 year-old twins Peter and Josh, Kitty, 10, and Eva, 2 — he is also close to his extended family.
‘‘Nan doesn’t want me to go (away for football), Mum doesn’t want me to go, but we’ll all get around that. They’ll miss me of course, but we’ll get around that,’’ he said.
But Ratugolea’s Fijian heritage means he is a near certainty to be drafted into the AFL.
Under Richmond’s Next Generation Academy, which encourages indigenous and multicultural participation, the club has flagged Ratugolea as a player in its sights.
If he is not picked up in the national or rookie draft, the Tigers are able to automatically list him as a category B rookie.
With the guarantee of an AFL career, Ratugolea said his family would soon come to terms with the oldest child moving away.
‘‘They haven’t really been through anything like this yet. Now that I’ve grown up and I’m about to move, they’ll be sad for a couple of weeks like me, but they’ll adapt to it and I’ll adapt to it pretty quick and then it’ll all be perfectly fine, I’ll probably come here as much as I can.’’
ESAVA RATUGOLEA FACT FILE
2016 TAC Cup games: 10 (15 goals)
2016 achievements: Victoria Country Academy, AFL national combine invitee, member of under-18 Chris Judd All Stars team.
Murray Bushrangers coach Leon Higgins’ take: ‘‘He’s a powerful 195cm rock forward. There’s a lot to like about him and I think he’ll really thrive on a full-time list.’’