Leadership role at Cronulla Sharks helps Andrew Fifita come of age

Fired up: Sharks prop Andrew Fifita was strong in Cronulla's dominant trial win over Newcastle at Maitland. Picture: Marina Neil
Fired up: Sharks prop Andrew Fifita was strong in Cronulla's dominant trial win over Newcastle at Maitland. Picture: Marina Neil

Andrew Fifita believes 2018 was the year that he finally came of age as a leader.

It happened early last season during a turbulent period as the Sharks battled a horror injury run.

Paul Gallen and Wade Graham had gone down with knee and hamstring injuries in the round six loss to St George Illawarra. Luke Lewis also suffered a calf injury against the Dragons but would back up the following week against Penrith at Shark Park, only to suffer a recurrence of the injury early on.

Fifita himself had gone down with what was initially feared to be a season-ending knee injury against the Dragons, only to make a miraculous recovery to play against the Panthers nine days later.

Then Shane Flanagan awarded Fifita the captaincy without three of Cronulla's strongest leaders and personalities. 

It was a role he would relish as, almost on one knee, Fifita played all but seven minutes of the win over Penrith. His three-match run as captain coincided with a six-game winning streak from the Sharks.

It also earned him some glowing praise from NRL headquarters.

"You look at the leadership role and I think I just came of age. Last year I pretty much got thrown in the deep end. I never wanted to be in a leadership group. I'd rather let my actions do the talking and let guys follow," Fifita said. 

"And pretty much we had five of our main players out so I kind of fell into that line. I kind of had to go into captaincy. I think the referee's boss gave a really good letter back to Flanno about me being captain and said I was the best captain they'd had in years. I think I got my gig from there. It was just lucky for me the boys played well and we won six in a row. So I was quite happy with that.

"Even the [Sharks] administration came down and told me they received the letter. It was a bit different. I don't even know what I was saying [to the referees]. I was always 'thanks, please'. I just kept saying 'thank you sir, it's my first time up to you, I don't know how to approach this.' It was all just fun and games to be honest.

"There were times where he said 'you can't talk to me' so they were really bringing me into the role. It's just unfamiliar territory but you kind of move forward.

"Now I've come of age and with the players we have here it's just a smooth transition into that leadership role. I've got Wadeo and Gal to lean on now but it is what it is. I guess if you look at our squad I would have to be in that leadership role. It's been quite an off-season but a happy one, too."

Fifita's ascension to Cronulla's leadership group - alongside experienced heads Josh Dugan, Josh Morris, Matt Prior, Aaron Woods and Chad Townsend as well as co-captains Gallen and Graham - comes at a time when they need strong leaders more than ever.

Rookie coach John Morris has taken over from Flanagan and the Sharks face a tricky away trip to face Newcastle on Friday night, with the Knights a somewhat unknown quantity given their strong recruitment drive.

And Fifita will be fit and firing for his clash with Knights prop David Klemmer.

The 29-year-old has overcome his serious knee injury last season that hampered his preparation during the weeks - before battling to play on weekends - thanks to two off-season operations.

There were times last season when Fifita couldn't walk for three days after a match. What he described at the time as some "old-school Tongan treatment" from his father and extra physio work with Cronulla's staff was all that was keeping him on the field.

But he is now raring to go, as evidenced by his performance in the NRL All-Stars clash and Cronulla's strong trial win over the Knights at Maitland.

"I think I was [going to be] out for six to eight weeks when they told me [about my knee injury last season]. And then I had to go see my old man plus the physio staff here who were helping me out. They really didn't want me to play and I just said 'back me'," he said, 

"And I got through and kind of just struggled with it all year, playing on one leg, never training, just captain's run, game, captain's run, game. It was a long year. Mentally it just broke me down. Frustrating, tough but I had my two ops over the off-season and got back running and it's pretty much done really well.

"I didn't think I was that fit but come All-Stars game I was punching out a lot of minutes and then played the first 40 [minutes] in the trial [against Newcastle]. I wasn't in catch-up mode. I'm in pretty good shape at the moment.

"I couldn't walk for the first three days after a game. Just severe bone bruising, no cartilage, it was the toughest injury I've ever had. I've had broken arms, had my ankles cleaned out, done ankle surgeries but I felt like this was next level. I remember going into Flanno's office and saying 'I can't do it anymore'. But just toughening up and getting it done was quite tough. But at the end of the day I got the job done.

"I had a clean out then I had a new stem cell one. Pretty much rip your guts out and put them in your knee. It was just very sore.

"Its always a long year. I told the docs I've re-signed for five years and he looked at me with this shocking face. And I was like 'what?' You get injured and [doctors] give you the best advice. [But] if they say eight to 12 weeks [out] I'm thinking let's cut it down. Anything to get in the game.

"I love to play football. I get paid very well to play football. At the end of the day it's my childhood dream and I'm living the dream. I'm a competitor, I just love everything [about it]. You saw me, I was limping in the games last year. I had food poisoning one game and just had to get on with it, just spewing through it.

"Something about football just drives me crazy. I don't like watching football, never have never will. I hate video sessions. I just don't like watching work. For me last year was a very tough year for myself and this year I can't wait to get on with it."