Ravalawa admits he knows nothing about the NRL. Image: Adam Yip
Ravalawa admits he knows nothing about the NRL. Image: Adam Yip

Dragons rookie who can’t name a single Rabbitoh

So you ask Mikaele Ravalawa to name three players from South Sydney, his rivals on Thursday night.

"Aaaaah," the Fijian says slowly, "no, I don't know.

"I don't know any of them."

You can't name even one Rabbitoh?

"Ummm," he stammers, eyes moving off and over your shoulder like, maybe, a name can be found out in the rain now falling on this overcast Wollongong Monday.

But it can't. Or not immediately.

Ravalawa sitting for the longest stretch of silence before, finally, a giant smile spreads wide on his face.

"The Burgess," he grins.

You mean British brothers Sam, Tom and George?

"Yes," the St George Illawarra rookie confirms. "Good players."

 

Ravalawa admits he knows nothing about the NRL. Image: Adam Yip
Ravalawa admits he knows nothing about the NRL. Image: Adam Yip

 

Seated now with League Central in the WIN Stadium grandstand - dressed down in black shorts, Dragons T-shirt and a pair of thongs - Ravalawa is finally giving the interview he asked club officials to delay until after his NRL debut, five days ago.

"But really, I wanted to wait until round 10," he grins. "I don't like doing media. Don't know what to say."

Still only 21, Ravalawa is the island flyer who has never watched a game of NRL.

 

Sure, he has now played the full 80 minutes. But never endured that long as a spectator.

Just as when meeting St George Illawarra officials last year, he didn't know head coach Paul McGregor.

Nor could he name a single Dragons player.

And as for his attitude to a game taken up only two years back?

"On field," Ravalawa says, "I tell myself, 'take the ball, run hard.'

"Then in defence, 'tackle hard'.

"That's it."

 

The Dragons have some serious raw talent on their hands. Image: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images
The Dragons have some serious raw talent on their hands. Image: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

 

Born and raised in the tiny Fijian village of Galoa, Ravalawa can tell you of a childhood where he ate what the family grew, ran logs uphill for fitness and went to school barefoot, with only the one shirt.

"So every afternoon," he recalls, "I'd have to wash and hang it."

And when the washing and hanging was done, little "Mika" and his mates played footy with a coconut. Or if one lay about, a plastic bottle.

"We'd empty the water out," he recalls, "then smash each other."

And always, the game was rugby union.

Which resulted in some confusion three years back when Ravalawa, still a teenager - and having lived for a year in Christchurch as a Super Rugby hopeful - was approached by famed league scout Peter Mulholland, who appeared in Fiji with a Canberra contract.

 

NRL legend Noa Nadruku was unknown to Ravalawa.
NRL legend Noa Nadruku was unknown to Ravalawa.

 

Only problem was, Ravalawa didn't know Mulholland. Or the Canberra Raiders.

"So they try to tell me about Noa Nadruku," he recalls. "But I just said, 'Noa who?'."

You didn't know the original Fijian Flyer?

"I only knew Semi Radradra," he shrugs. "And Parramatta. I didn't know Canberra. Or Peter. They had to explain everything to me."

Yet once they did, the kid signed. And weeks later, he arrived in Canberra with nothing but a backpack.

"Which is a funny story," Ravalawa says. "One of the Raiders staff, they were at the airport to pick me up. And so after seeing my backpack, they took me across to that area where all the bags come out. Then, we waited …"

Together, watching patiently as, one after another, every suitcase was collected and that conveyor belt was emptied.

"So I asked the official, 'What are we waiting for?'," Ravalawa continues. "He said, 'Didn't you bring any other bags?'.

"I said, 'My backpack'.

"He started laughing and we walked to the car."

And since?

 

Ravalawa clearly has what it takes. Image: AAP Image/Michael Chambers
Ravalawa clearly has what it takes. Image: AAP Image/Michael Chambers

 

Well, after an outstanding debut season in Canberra - where he earned Under-20s Player of the Year - Ravalawa was last winter demoted to bush footy after revealing his decision to switch clubs, representing Gungahlin against outfits such as the Queanbeyan Blues and Tuggeranong Buffaloes.

"Which was pretty easy," he grins. Or at least until joining St George Illawarra.

"Mika came here underdone," McGregor recalls. "And raw. Still, I liked what I saw.

"During our first opposed sessions, he was in the ISP squad and really bending our boys back with his carries."

And then in the trials?

"His form was irresistible," McGregor says.

All of which now has this Fijian playing in a competition he doesn't know.

"I've never watched NRL," he says. "Growing up, this wasn't my dream. I wanted to be a rugby player.

"Even now on television, I'll watch Super Rugby or sevens … but not the NRL."

So your reason for switching?

"Opportunity," he says.

 

The new Dragons has plenty of perspective on what the NRL means. Image: Adam Yip
The new Dragons has plenty of perspective on what the NRL means. Image: Adam Yip

 

Like the money Ravalawa sends home each month to his parents, who have used said funds to build a kava plantation.

"They're also coming out to see me play," he adds. "Mum just needs a passport.

"Life is so different now. A dream."

Elsewhere, Ravalawa has not only improved his knowledge of Fijian league history - "Yes, I know the legend Nadruku now" - but also spent the past month bagging a trial double, winning a Dragons wing spot and making his NRL debut in the 24-12 loss to North Queensland.

Indeed, while so many of last weekend's headlines involved countryman Maika Sivo's own debut for Parramatta against the Panthers, Ravalawa quietly played while mourning those 50 souls killed in Christchurch, his home in 2016.

"Where the shooting happened, it's near where I lived," he says. "My homestay mum, she posted some stuff.

"It makes me sad. So sad."

Yet despite carrying a heavy heart into the Townsville clash, Ravalawa still ran for 145m, more than any other Dragon, while also busting seven tackles - one better than even Jason Taumalolo.

At training, he also sits among the club's best three gym lifters. Some going for a fella who, until a couple of years ago, would simply run sandbags and logs uphill to improve strength.

"Strong as a bull," McGregor insists. "And while he's quiet, Mika isn't shy. He's comfortable with his talent.

"Becoming a real student of his own game, too."

But as for knowing which Rabbitoh will oppose him at Jubilee Oval? Which centre is on his side?

Anyone at all beyond The Burgess?

"Ah, no," Ravalawa grins. "I don't know anyone."