Andrew Fifita has opened up about how close he came to walking away from rugby league, describing himself as “the world’s most hated man” during his tumultuous premiership season.
Fifita experienced the ultimate rollercoaster ride in 2016, controversially missing out on Clive Churchill medal honours and a Kangaroos call-up despite his grand final heroics. The Cronulla prop has long been a controversy magnet, but the fallout from his support of one-punch killer Kieran Loveridge prompted him to consider defecting to rugby.
At a time when his teammates were basking in the afterglow of the club’s maiden grand final victory, Fifita felt a reviled figure as his future was left in the hands of others.
“I was the world’s most hated man,” Fifita said. “But at the end of the day I walked away with a ring and a premiership to my name. That’s the main thing. We got through it. And as soon as the grand final happened, we got right away from the game, which was the best thing for my family and I.”
The NRL, in consultation with the police, took several months to determine a suitable punishment for Fifita. While in limbo, the 27-year-old gave serious consideration to walking away from rugby league altogether.
“Rugby is always there. I played rugby pretty much my whole life, except these last seven years where I’ve been in rugby league,” said Fifita, who is studying for a diploma in mental health with a view to helping others with off-field issues.
“It’s always an option. At the end of the day, you just wait for who will be the next guy in the headlines … I waited for it to pass me by.
“Things were thrown up and I was willing to take them, but then again, I really wanted the [World] Club Challenge, and the next year and the chance to go back-to-back.
“We’re reigning premiers and I really wanted to defend that. That was the main thing in my head, and that’s what I wanted the most.”
Fifita’s brother David, a former Sharks teammate, played a key role in convincing Fifita there was more to achieve in the NRL.
“David kept saying, ‘I want you to stick it out, you don’t play a game like that in the grand final and then come out of it and walk away from the game’,” Fifita said.
“It was a good game to walk away from because you absolutely killed it. In saying that you move forward.”
Asked if he fell out of love with the game, Fifita said: “Not really. I was in the same situation the year before.
“I felt down the year before because I put pressure on myself, I wasn’t able to play the last six games, and my first game back was a semi-final.
“To happen again like that, going into next year, I didn’t want to lose. It lifted my game to another level, playing with expectation.
“We got the job done.”
Fifita was banned from Australian selection for last year’s Four Nation campaign, but coach Mal Meninga has indicated he will be welcomed back to the fold should his form warrant selection.
“If we go back to where we were [at Cronulla] and if I keep playing footy how it is at the moment, the sky is the limit,” Fifita said.
“I really want to go back-to-back in both things – in winning a grand final and winning a World Cup.
“I was there in 2013, I know the feeling of what it is to win a World Cup.
“I want to be a world champion again and hopefully my footy can do the talking. I haven’t been talking to the media a lot lately, I just want to focus on my footy.
“I want to be back in those teams, that’s another goal of mine to be back there. I got the Origin one back and it’s just about good footy to keep it.”