CRONULLA Sharks giant Andrew Fifita, one of the stars with his two tries in his side’s 45-4 thrashing of New Zealand Warriors, has told how he was forced to leave Sydney to get his life back on track.
The 194-centimetre, 120 kilogram forward revealed a troubled background too familiar to some aboriginal and islander players: a product of a broken family, strife on the street leading to disaster.
In Fifita’s case, that was going to jail.
If it wasn’t for his family — his mother and his fiancée in particular — he could still be behind bars.
As a teenager growing up in Blacktown, Fifita, part aboriginal and part Tongan, found trouble quite easily. He admitted he got in with a ‘‘bad group of kids’’.
But today, Fifita looks back on his early life and refuses to blame others for his troubles.
‘‘I won’t blame anyone else but myself for what happened,’’ he said.
‘‘I got into big strife and with the police, and I landed behind bars.
‘‘It was mum who got me out. She and my elder brother hocked everything they had.
‘‘I can’t thank them enough but I realised I was still in trouble living where I was.
‘‘I didn’t want to get into more trouble. I just didn’t want to risk going back to jail.
‘‘So I decided to get out of Sydney.’’
At 16, and much skinnier than he is now, a gangly Andrew Fifita headed off to Griffith in the state’s Riverina district, far from the troubled western suburbs of Sydney.
He finished his education at Griffith High, while playing league with his new junior club, Griffith Waratahs. Originally a talented outside back, he represented Group 20 and was named man of the match in Griffith’s victorious 2008 first grade grand final team.
His raw skills were not unnoticed by talent scouts and he came back to Sydney and tried out with the Roosters.
‘‘But in the end they considered me too small,’’ Fifita said with a laugh. ‘‘Until I had a growth spurt, I really did have trouble getting up to 80kg.’’
Fifita eventually grew into his tall frame and won a contract with Wests Tigers, initially playing in the under 20s ... and mindful of his past.
‘‘I didn’t hang out with my old mates. I got a new group of mates, living out at Wilberforce,’’ he said. Another life-changing experience came after Fifita won his first grade debut with West Tigers.
‘‘I met a girl at the [leagues] club and we hit it off,’’ he said. ‘‘I told her, ‘Why don’t you come out and see what I do for a living.’
‘‘She was surprised to see me playing for the Tigers.
‘‘Nikita and I are now engaged.’’
With the Tigers, a much bigger Fifita made his mark as one of the up and coming prop forwards in Sydney, and even represented Tonga in 2010.
Then, he joined the Sharks under unusual circumstances.
Having lost established props Kade Snowden (Newcastle) and Luke Douglas (Titans) at the end of 2011, Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan was offered Bryce Gibbs by a Tigers club with salary cap problems, after signing Melbourne’s Kiwi prop Adam Blair on a huge contract.
But Flanagan insisted he would only take the more experienced Gibbs if Fifita was part of the deal. The joint-venture club was reluctant to part with one of their best young forwards, but eventually agreed to let the 22-year-old join Gibbs in his move to Woolooware.
‘‘I could see Andrew was a different type of player to the typical prop — tall, big but with good speed,’’ he said. ‘‘We were lucky to get Bryce and Andrew.’’
Fifita and Gibbs joined former Sharks Ben Ross and Jon Green, as well as Knights hard-man Mark Taufua.
He took a while regaining his fitness, but was rewarded early when he was chosen to represent the Indigenous All Stars against the NRL All Stars.
‘‘We all want to desperately play the finals series. We’ve worked so hard to get there, to turn things around.’’
None, probably more than Fifita himself.
? Andrew Fifita set a club record for a bench player against the Panthers. In 56 minutes he made 22 hit ups and 181 metres (and 31 tackles), and on Sunday against the Warriors, he made 177 metres off the bench, and scored two tries. Twin brother David played lower-grade for Wests Tigers and their uncle is former tough St George forward, John Fifita.