The first thing that hits you when you meet Blues wing David Raikuna is his beaming, infectious smile that can light up any room.
But behind the smile and laid back persona is a steely determination driving the young winger to succeed.
He may only be 25-years-old and in his first year of Super Rugby, but he possesses a wealth of character and attitude belying his relatively junior years.
You just have to look at Raikuna’s upbringing to realise he has already achieved so much, yet he’s only just getting started.
Born and raised in a poor family in Suva, Fiji, Raikuna played soccer until the age of 17 before a glimpse of the touring Wesley College 1st XV immediately sparked his passion for the oval ball game.
“I saw Wesley College come over for a school tour and I watched them play and that’s when I told my mum I want to play rugby and I don’t want to go to school anymore,” he quipped
“I still remember the words she said – ‘we’ll pray for it but have faith’ and from there Wesley College gave me a scholarship to come over in 2006 and I’ve been here ever since.”
It was an incredibly tough and trying time for the youngster who made the trip to New Zealand by himself. The only member of his family to ever board a plane, Raikuna made an immediate impact upon arrival with his trademark Fijian flare catching the eyes of the selectors.
Yet it wasn’t all fun and games for the 18-year-old.
“I would see kids go home and parents picking them up and giving them a hug and I would cry just to look at them and remember I had to stay back with no mum or dad. It was very challenging for me when I first started but it has made me become the man I am today, to become stronger and not to depend on anyone.”
Indeed without a father figure to depend on, Raikuna has had to push himself to succeed.
ìMy father left when I was quite young so it was quite tough for me. I had a lot of goals but no-one to push me so I was always self motivated to become the best I could be and that’s why I sometimes get growled at by my teammates. I’m often down because there’s no-one there to say ‘heads up, don’t worry about it’ but I’ve learned a lot throughout the years and you can’t let these things hold you back.î
It certainly hasn’t held him back and he has made huge sacrifices to achieve his goals. Earmarked as a Sevens player by New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens, Raikuna was told he needed to stay in New Zealand for three years to be eligible to make the team.
Such was Raikuna’s desire and passion to succeed, he remained in New Zealand for four years without flying home once to visit his family in order to be selected.
With his goal of achieving national honours for the New Zealand Sevens team realised, Raikuna set about his next task of becoming a Super Rugby player.
After seasons with Counties Manukau and North Harbour in the ITM Cup, he was selected in the Blues squad for the first time this year, and despite a disappointing year, he has relished every opportunity.
“To be playing here with such great players that I’ve watched as a youngster it’s just an amazing opportunity for me,” he said.
“I love the environment, I love the boys and I always tell my partner that there’s more to rugby than just winning. I sometimes get growled at by my uncles and aunties but that doesn’t hold me back, I just tell them rugby is rugby and what happens on the field stays on the field. It shouldn’t affect the outside of life because there’s more to life. I’m always excited, I’m always happy and I’m always trying to get better as a player.”
He has certainly grown as a player this season and shown what he is capable of, with flashes of brilliance despite limited opportunities.
The comparisons between Raikuna and fellow Fijian and former Blues star Joe Rokocoko are inevitable, but he is not being weighed down by the expectation of trying to emulate him.
“A lot of people were saying they didn’t think I was up to the task. Obviously they are big shoes to fill but this is my first year and this year is more learning for me. Pat has always been on my back and the same with Bryce Woodward which I really thank them for because to become a better player you need to learn a lot and have the right attitude. I look up to Joe and still watch his videos and try and learn off the things that he does but I believe it will take time for me to get to know and also to be able to become the player that he is.”
So what does the future hold for Raikuna?
“My main goal is to make the All Blacks. Four years ago it was to make the Sevens and then the Blues obviously this year which I’ve done and All Blacks for next year and that is a goal that I’m setting. Obviously it will take a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice but I’m ready to do all the hard work and take the learnings on board and push on from there.”
If Raikuna continues to work as hard and sacrifice as much as he is currently doing to reach the All Blacks, it is only a matter of time before we see him in that black jersey.