You may not have heard of Jimmy Tuivaiti. There were times even he needed Google to work out where he was heading.

The last name may ring a bell. Tuivaiti's wife, high school sweetheart Cathrine, is the now Scotland-based former Silver Ferns shooter.

Brother Ray was destined for higher rugby honours after moving through age-grade sides to captain the New Zealand under-19s only for two ACL ruptures — the first in his trial for the national under-20s — to cruelly end his career.

Younger brother Jimmy, though, was never really on the rugby radar. He took the long, hard road to achieving his test rugby dream, and nearly chucked it all in when living alone in the small Italian town of Calvisano almost became too much.


Growing up in Henderson, west Auckland, Tuivaiti attended Kelston Boys' High School where, for a long time, he refused to tread his big brother's rugby footsteps. Instead, his sporting passion was representative volleyball.

Only after switching to Massey for his seventh form year and making the first XV did Tuivaiti discover his love of rugby. Massey is also where he and Cat first met — the pair telling different versions of who followed whom around the playground.

"You might want to check up that story," Tuivaiti says. "She was following me."

Fresh out of school, Jimmy joined Ray at the Kumeu club, where he teamed up with cousin Fou in the midfield after being deemed too young for his favoured six/eight role.

His form garnered attention and a call-up to North Harbour's provincial training squad.

Selected as an outside back, for two months Tuivaiti rubbed shoulders with Jonah Lomu.

Tuivaiti knew Harbour's Samoan international Tusi Pisi and former All Blacks and Blues midfielder Anthony Tuitavake through their younger brothers. Jonah, though, was another prospect entirely.

I was buzzing. He was trying to give me tips about positions on the field. I clearly wasn't listening. I was in awe.

"I was pinching myself. I never thought I would meet him. He had just come back from Cardiff. I was buzzing and he was trying to give me tips about certain positions on the field. I clearly wasn't listening ... I was just in awe."

Moving down to the Harbour under-20s for two years, Tuivaiti, now back in his accustomed loose forward position, earned promotion for his provincial debut in 2012. He didn't do enough to retain his place the following season, instead turning out for the B team. But making the 2014 ITM Cup squad proved a turning point.

At the end of that season, he talked with coach Steve Jackson about the possibility of cracking the Blues.

"That was the ultimate goal. He was telling me 'they are looking into you but there are a couple of other good young guys coming through and there are no guarantees'."

Searching for solid answers to plan his rugby future, Tuivaiti opted to explore offshore options that could lead to the test arena.

A second division contract with Japanese club Mazda fell through at the last minute, leaving Calvisano as the other interested party.

"Talking with my agent at the time, my goal was to go to either country to see if I could get an international cap. I've always wanted to play international rugby."

Calvisano, in the Lombardy region and the Brescia province an hour's drive from Milan, is far from a metropolis. With 8500 residents, it is no surprise Tuivaiti hadn't heard of it.

"It's in the middle of nowhere. Trust me, it's not even a dot on the map. I had to Google it about 10 times to find out where it actually was and Google doesn't miss anything. It's kind of like your Swanson Rd of Brescia."

Living outside New Zealand for the first time, in a foreign town where Italian is the only way of conversing, induced immediate culture shock.

"The way of doing things is a lot different to what I was used to. After my first month, I was contemplating packing my things and going back home. The club looked after me really well but when you come from an Islander family where everything is tight-knit to living alone in a foreign country where communication is next to nothing ... it was tough. I wouldn't say I hit a phase of depression but it was sad.

"You have this big dream of wanting to be a rugby player but at what cost? That was going through my mind during those months. When I look back at it now, I'm so happy I endured that hard time and bad thoughts to carry on because it brought me here."

I've definitely gone the long way in doing things. I'm now 31 and getting my second cap in an international set-up.

Pushing through those isolation struggles, Tuivaiti signed one-year deals for three seasons. He went on to play 57 games for Calvisano, before being snapped up by Pro14 club Zebre in the city of Parma.

Having satisfied the three-year residency criteria, his long-awaited test debut arrived against Ireland in Chicago last year.

"I definitely teared up singing a foreign national anthem. It was such a rush. There's so much I can't remember."

Pre-match, Italian coach Conor O'Shea told all 23 players they would get on. Waiting on the bench, Tuivaiti shook with nerves. With 25 minutes to go, he got his first touch — running into good friend, New Zealand-born Irish midfielder Bundee Aki, and losing the ball.

From there, though, he settled into his work.

The best part about that day? Cat being in the stands.

"If there was anyone I wanted there, it was definitely my wife. She's been there from the very beginning and she is a huge part of why I carried on to get to where I'm at today."

The Tuivaitis have a unique relationship in that they've spent so much time apart — much of it on opposite sides of the globe — chasing their respective sporting dreams. Pressure has long been applied to follow a more conventional route but they make it work for them.

"We want kids and we love kids but we figured during this lifetime let's try as hard as we can to get what we want before we settle down and have that white picket fence lifestyle we're looking towards after our sporting lives.

"We never would have written this story a good 18 years ago when we were at school but it's happened and we're loving the ride while we're doing it."

Tuivaiti featured again in Italy's 33-20 loss to Scotland in last weekend's opening Six Nations round in Edinburgh. His journey, to date, is one of never wanting to be a rugby player at high school; of battling his way to the fringe of Super Rugby, and scrapping and surviving the essence of Italian life to realise a dream of playing test rugby.

"I've definitely gone the long way in doing things. I'm now 31 and getting my second cap in an international set-up. There has been a lot of hard work to get here. It's also due to a lot of support from family and friends from back home and them believing in what I'm doing. Otherwise, what's all this hard work for? I look back and think I'm grateful and blessed."