Esava’s ready to fly

Geelong footballer Esava Ratugolea. (Luke Hemer) 201937_12

Stephen Linnell

Key moments come in many guises.

A kick, a mark, maybe a dash down the wing. They can be standalone events, or a combination of actions.

Esava Ratugolea’s moment came in week two of last year’s AFL finals series in Geelong’s semi-final clash with West Coast.

Haunted by the previous week’s loss to Collingwood and their dismal recent finals record, the Cats were desperate to atone.

Enter Esava.

A pack crashing dynamo in search of the contested mark crown.

It’s late in the first quarter. Big ‘Sav’, as he is known, takes his first contested pack mark, before slotting it through from 25 metres out to give the Cats a 19 point lead.

Just three minutes later, ruckman Rhys Stanley again sends the ball forward and up goes Sav, taking his second contested pack grab. Another goal.

With fellow forward Tom Hawkins also on fire, the Cats went into half time 10 points in front.

Then, within a minute of the third term, a high ball went forward again for the Cats. Big Sav ran slightly to his left before launching to take arguably his best mark of the night. From 30 metres out, he saluted.

While West Coast came back in the third quarter, the Cats were able to steady to file away a 20 point win and advance to a preliminary final against eventual premier Richmond.

But Ratugolea’s performance that night against West Coast signalled to the football world that the young man had arrived. He finished the match with three goals and 11 contested possessions, both equal career highs.

Indeed, he finished last season ranked 17th in the AFL for contested marks and second only at Geelong behind multiple All-Australian and premiership star Tom Hawkins. Not a bad result from the 21 year-old who now has just 28 games to his name.

“Yeah, it was really good,” Ratugolea told the Geelong Independent. “For me, it [2019] was all about getting consistent footy into me and I got to do that and I felt good.”

At 197 centimetres, Ratugolea has blossomed as Geelong’s second tall forward and occasional ruckman. His injury-free 2019, when he played 20 games, contrasted to 2018.

Having debuted earlier in the season, who could forget that moment when his right leg became awkwardly trapped underneath his body in a game against Carlton?

Ratugolea suffered tibia and fibula fractures and spent the rest of that season recovering. “I learnt a lot from that,” he said. “That was very tough.

“Coming up to that I don’t think I was as professional with my body. I didn’t know my body as much.

“Going through that injury I got to learn a lot about myself and my body.

“Just doing the things on the side that make me better when I get on the field.”

Ratugolea is speaking to the Independent not long after returning from his first overseas trip, a holiday to Europe with his mates including Geelong’s Irish import Mark O’Connor.

“I went to Europe. London, then to Ireland and I spent some time with Mark O’Connor’s family in Ireland, then flew to Scotland and went to Norway.

He travelled to Tromso, north of the arctic circle and a place where the sun does not rise above the horizon during the winter months. It was an experience he will never forget.

“That was unbelievable, that was one of the main things we wanted to do,” he said.

“We were so lucky, we got blessed with some really good weather.

He continued his first overseas trip to Amsterdam before finishing off in Italy and was in awe of the history of Europe.

“It’s crazy… seriously it’s unbelievable,” he said.

Ratugolea hasn’t had a lot of time to learn about footy. He’s a latecomer to the sport in every sense.

His Fijian parents moved to Australia when he was young.

He lived in Griffith, New South Wales for four years, before moving to Sydney.

“Mum wanted to move to Sydney, but it got a little bit too much there, so we moved to Cobram … it’s a little more quiet.”

There, he mainly played soccer until finding footy through his best mate. “I always wanted to play rugby growing up, but being in Cobram there was no rugby around. I was playing a lot of soccer and one day my mate asked me if I wanted to play footy and I just joined him,” he said. But he quickly adapted.

Ratugolea has two younger twin brothers, one with cerebral palsy, and two younger sisters. The family travels down from Cobram often to see Big Sav split packs.

Selected by the Murray Bushrangers in the Under 18 statewide competition, he played mainly as a forward, though spent some time in the ruck.

Geelong’s recruiting maestro Stephen Wells saw enough in him to select him at pick 43 in the 2016 national draft.

“I think this is my third or fourth pre-season now and I am feeling really good,” he said.

“As long as I get through the pre-season I’m really excited about this year.

“I feel like I got enough games last year to feel comfortable in myself and the team. This year will be at another level.”

And it will need to be.

At last year’s draft, the Cats recruited another tall, former Adelaide forward Josh Jenkins.

Jenkins, 30, kicked 296 goals in 147 games for the Crows, booting the third most majors for the club over the past decade.

But last year he appeared to fall out of favour, kicking just 22 goals in 11 matches.

Asked whether he would take the second tall role or Jenkins, Ratugolea said:

“At the moment it’s too early. We are training a lot though, we’re testing out little things here and there with our forward structures and things like that.

“I wouldn’t mind playing higher up the ground and getting into the game a bit more and also playing in the ruck as well.”

Former Geelong premiership captain Cameron Ling recently told the club’s To the Final Bell podcast that Jenkins was no guarantee to step straight in to replace Ratugolea. “He (Jenkins) doesn’t just come straight in and play,” Ling said.

“If he forces his way in and gets back to that form of a couple of years ago, you cannot argue with his form absolutely. He adds an element to the Cats that perhaps elevates them to where they got to get to.

“If it ever becomes line ball, it’s got to go to Sav (Ratugolea).”

Currently sitting at 106 kilograms, Ratugolea said he was working hard to reduce his weight.

“I was playing at 104 (kilograms) last year, so maybe I’ll come down to 103, 102 this year,” he said.

“I’d like to cover the ground a bit more. See how I go, get to a few more contests and things like that.”

Fast Facts

Esava Ratugolea

Age: 21

Height 197cm

Games 28

Goals 22

Debut 2018

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