By the way of breakout seasons, they don’t come much more powerful than Andrew Fifita has had this year. A front rower with more palms than Gilligan’s Island, Fifita is now an established representative player and chasing an Australian World Cup place, ironically enough under the coach who gave him his first grade start, then decided to release him.
While always seen as a star in the making during his time at the Tigers, fitness issues and a perceived lack of discipline held him back, particularly in a forward pack that included four internationals. He was squeezed out amid much media attention following 2011 to make way for the signing of Adam Blair, joining the Sharks with fellow prop Bryce Gibbs after finishing the season in reserve grade.
His arrival at Cronulla signalled a new beginning for the then 22 year old, and it seems the change of scenery was just what was needed for him to breakout into the elite, even if it did take 12 months to settle in. With fellow former Tiger Gibbs and former Origin star Ben Ross as the established starters, Fifita had to bide his time and work for a starting spot, one which came in the unfamiliar second row position in Round 18, but only lasted two weeks.
A call up to the Blues In Waiting camp in the next off-season signalled the breakout season that has followed, but even now he has only started 10 of his 20 games in 2013. It seems as though he, along with the likes of James Graham, has created his own niche as a 60 minute front rower who starts on the bench.
It was this encouragement and the pain of exiting the finals short of expectations in 2012 that has driven Fifita to succeed in a big way in 2013. While fitness issues had plagued him early in his career, which had meant only short stints on the field and from the bench, a tough off season in the Shire has made this his point of difference. His last-ditch effort last Saturday night (see below) just proves this - he’s become a fullback in a front-rower’s body, a man that’s been kicked out of the front-rower’s club that many times in a year it’s not funny.
But when it comes down to it, that’s what makes his season so special - some hard work off the field and a lot of motivation on it. It may have taken a couple of years longer than he and footy fans would have liked, but it is another example of how much maturing on the field can progress a player’s career. Gone are the cheap penalties and soft mistakes often caused by trying too hard, and in their place are tackle breaks, line breaks, and 50m sprints. And after all that, he’s only played 81 NRL games...could Fifita be NSW’s great big hope?
Jim Beam Smooth Move of the Week
He almost has a weekly entry for this, and again Andrew Fifita displayed the athleticism and skill that has had people comparing him to Glenn Lazarus. Trailing by two points in the final minute, Fifita toed ahead a deflected Todd Carney kick, outpacing Jason Nightingale and Jack de Belin to plant down the ball just in front of the chasers and win the game.