Fijian rugby star: Andrew’s rugby journey from Natabuquto to Oxford
5 February, 2023, 11:02 pm
Great athletes stay humble.
They may get catapulted to the pinnacle of success but always remain grounded.
This is what makes Fijian rugby star, Andrew Durutalo so unique.
The Tailevu man has plied his trade locally and internationally, with a relentless pursuit of excellence but he has never called attention to himself.
He added another feather to his rugby accolades recently after graduating with an Executive Degree in Business Administration at Oxford University’s Saïd business school, keeping true to his parents’ teaching.
The Natabuquto villager from Magodro, Ba, grew up with an extended family which he believes is “a big part of who I am”.
But his true pillars of strength were his parents, academics Simione Durutalo and Alumita Durutalo.
His dad passed away when Andrew was six years old so for a long time, it was Andrew, his sisters and mum until 2018 when Dr Alumita passed after a long illness.
“I was fortunate to have a strong extended family base,” Andrew told this newspaper.
“I had my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents so it was a very rich mix experience of nuclear and extended.”
Andrew has maternal links to Namena village in the district of Namena in Tailevu.
He has three siblings and was born in New York in 1987, at a time when his dad was pursuing his studies as a Fulbright Hayes Scholar at the state university of New York (University of Binghamton).
His family moved back to Fiji a few years later.
His wife, Tirisiyani, hails from the island of Bau in Tailevu.
Andrew started his education at Stella Maris Primary School and went on to attend secondary at Suva Grammar School.
After high school he was enrolled at the University of the South Pacific for a semester before being awarded a scholarship to study and play rugby at Hakuoh University in Japan.
Andrew’s rugby career took off when he was in high school.
His participation in age-group rugby was really the tool that helped him realise his true potential in the sport.
“I was part of a team that included the likes of Tevita Cavubati (Flying Fijians), Saimoni Vaka (Fiji), Jona Tuitoga (Fiji 7s), Ilikena Bolakoro (Flying Fijians), Samuela Vunisa (Italy), and the late John Vugakoto,” he said.
“Playing against the other schools at the time like Marist Brothers High School and Lelean Memorial School, which also produced their fair share of internationals, really got the ball rolling for me.”
Andrew would go on to captain age grade teams.
He first appeared for Fiji when he captained the Fiji Under 19’s at the 2006 Junior Rugby World Championships.
He was part of the Fiji U21 too.
“I knew from a young age that I was going to go down the rugby path, as I really just enjoyed playing the sport with my friends.”
After graduating with a Business Administration degree at the Hakuoh University in Japan, Andrew went on to represent the USA Eagles on more than 20 occasions including the 2015 Rugby World Cup and has 176 caps for the USA Sevens team.
His sevens achievements include becoming an Olympian in 2016, where he was the first Fijian to represent the US at the Olympics.
He also played for the Seattle Seawolves.
In the UK, he played for the Ealing Trailfinders, Worcester Warriors and Oxford Blue.
Focus on education
Despite his stint with many rugby teams around the world, Andrew never lost sight of advancing his education.
He believes this mindset was influenced by his big family, many of whom were teachers by profession and emphasised the importance of education on a family, village and community.
“I also got a lot of inspiration to succeed academically from my cousins, watching them slowly build and shape their careers in the various sectors and industries really influenced me in a way to see the world differently and the possibilities that could come out of that.”
Also, while all he wanted to do was chase a rugby ball, he found it intimidating because he came from a family where both parents were
academics and they had “set the bar so high”.
So towards the end of his professional rugby career, Andrew grew obliged to take more interest in the various areas “that his mum and dad focused on”.
“I was also fortunate to also receive great advice from my parents’ friends (many of whom are academics) and colleagues that helped navigate my way through the world of academia.”
He added that he was fortunate to “go to school first” before “pursuing his career in rugby”.
Having a qualification was something he felt he could fall back on after his rugby career ended.
“At the time, I did not really want to be in school as all my peers were getting signed to academies in France, New Zealand and the U.K but the best advice my mum ever gave me was, to stay in school until I graduated then I was free to chase my dream of being a professional rugby player.
“Looking back, it’s the one thing that helped with my transition out of sport so seamlessly.”
Connected to his roots
Despite his rugby and academic achievements, Andrew is still very much a proud villager from Natabuquto, deeply grounded in his roots and culture.
He believes that as an iTaukei, he needs to understand where he came from in order to appreciate and not take for granted the “position that you are in today’.
“I grew up predominantly on my maternal side as it was closer for my siblings and I had to be connected to our indigenous heritage and learn
Andrew remains connected to both sides of his family and tries to be involved through village rugby and school program development.
“I also went on to represent Northland rugby and captained the team on a few occasions in the domestic competition in Fiji which was probably some of my most enjoyable rugby memory, mainly because I was representing the people from my maternal side (who helped raise me) but also when the game was at its purest form for me. I played for the love of the game.”
Challenge to Fiji sports
From his experience being through the Fiji education system, Andrew believes the biggest hurdle facing athletes and sportspeople in Fiji is having the education structure and curriculum designed to align with sports.
He says there needs to be a system that allows students to engage in education and not miss out on the sports component of development.
“I feel it doesn’t really give students the freedom to do that and that was a problem that I faced in secondary school and tertiary, whereby you are either doing only school or sports and not both together.
“So, I think there definitely needs to be a lot of improvement in the educational system. It is important to have both as it really sets up a student post career and not having to start from square one and find it difficult to transition into working life because the harsh reality is that you cannot be an athlete forever.
“A revision of the schooling structure and curriculum are needed to accommodate student athletes no matter what sport they want to be
Andrew says women coming to the forefront of Fijian Society and Fijiana 7s winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics are prime reasons why Fiji should do more to support professional athletes pre and post career.
He says schools, tertiary or vocational colleges could also do their part in assisting youths who wish to be involved in sports by providing funding whether that be through a flexible timetable or tuition grants through scholarships.
The Oxford Experience
When asked about his experiences studying at the University of Oxford and being the first iTaukei to get accepted in the Said Business School, Andrew said it was a humbling experience.
“Oxford is a special place that people from the far corners of the world have most probably heard about. Going to a top institution has been very humbling, as I never dreamt in my wildest dreams that I would get accepted and for the most time going through “imposter syndrome” while I was there,” he said.
“I’m incredibly fortunate to meet some amazing classmates that have become very close friends. The cohort is made up of a very diverse group of people that come from a range of different sectors/industries backgrounds and the honor of being able to study and learn so much from them.
“It has really inspired me to try and influence kids in Fiji to dream big and continue to push the boundaries and our duty is to put them in a better position to succeed.”
Andrew’s advice to parents is to support their children in sports.
“Parents please support your kids in whatever they want to get into whether it be sport or anything for that matter. Help guide your kids through mentoring and monitoring their progress and encouraging them daily.
“For youths and youngsters trying to get into sport, train hard and use your time wisely. Time management is key for you to be successful in everything you are trying to achieve.
“Have a plan and work consistently to execute it, and lastly try to be proactive when thinking about what you want to do, this has helped me so much.”