MVPs of 2014: Andrew Fifita
As we count down to season 2014, NRL.com identifies 30 players who will be crucial to their team's fortunes this year. From new faces to rising stars to proven performers who will need to lift this season, these are our 'MVPs' for 2014.
It's difficult to recall a more rapid career ascent than the one 114kg behemoth Andrew Fifita managed with apparent ease at Cronulla in 2013.
After a sound debut season with the Sharks in 2012 the menacing prop with the short-back-and-sides haircut powered his way to representative honours with New South Wales and the Kangaroos, and now heads into the new NRL season as arguably the most versatile player to link his arm around a hooker since ball-playing Rugby League Immortal Arthur Beetson.
The past 12 months have delivered a stunning reversal of fortune for a player who was effectively shown the door by the Wests Tigers at the end of 2011 so the Concord crew could accommodate then NRL flavour-of-the-moment Adam Blair.
Central to the Sharks' drive to the top eight in 2013 was Fifita's emergence as a starting member of their team – he played 20 of 22 games off the bench in 2012 before figuring in coach Shane Flanagan's run-on side on 10 occasions last season.
What's particularly scary for other clubs is that despite Fifita's banner 2013 he prefers to provide impact off the bench, telling NRL.com over the off-season that "coming off the bench suits me fine, I would rather that than start the game".
"There are two different spins – when you start, in that first 20 minutes everyone is pressured, everyone is ready to go and you prepare that way," he said.
"When you come off the bench you have got that mentality to go forward and you have got that advantage. I've got my size so it's a bit of an advantage to come off the bench."
Fifita's talents are as broad as his hulking shoulders – in 2013 he clawed out more metres than any other player, led all props for tries and tackle-breaks and finished third in his position for line breaks and offloads. These feats saw him sweep the prestigious Dally M Prop of the Year award.
Wearing the green and gold at the Rugby League World Cup, where he played off the interchange bench, Fifita finished with more runs than any other Aussie forward (ranking sixth overall), ranked fourth for metres gained (with 711) and led forwards from all nations for tackle busts with 24 (fifth overall).
Sure, Cronulla depend on their skipper Paul Gallen and playmaker Todd Carney for much of their grinding go-forward and attacking flair respectively, but it's Fifita's contributions that will be relied on the most if the Shire side are to once again progress to the playoffs.
In particular Fifita has a knack for crossing the stripe – while most props spend their NRL months in fear of participating in the dreaded 'nudie run' for registering a doughnut next to their names for four-pointers scored at season's end, Fifita is a live chance of getting on the scoresheet every 80 minutes.
And not just through sheer force, as illustrated by his superb support play when scoring against the Dragons in the dying seconds to snatch victory in Round 23 last season.
While it's true that Fifita is at his best playing in a forward pack that's on the front foot, it's equally true that the Cronulla side as a whole are at their best when Fifita is wreaking havoc up front.
With him missing from their line-up the Sharks' attack loses more than a few of their razor-sharp teeth.