Cronulla Sharks star Andrew Fifita has spoken out in support of Matt Lodge and revealed he had phoned the controversial Brisbane Broncos prop on the eve of his return to the NRL to declare how proud he was of his efforts to turn his life around.
Lodge, who has not played a Telstra Premiership match since 2015, will make his comeback in Thursday night’s season opener against St George Illawarra Dragons after being encouraged by Fifita to check in to a rehabilitation clinic.
In the past two years, he has attended a series of rehabilitation programs and been regularly tested for alcohol and drugs, but debate has raged leading into the game at Kogarah about whether he should be allowed back in the NRL.
CCTV footage was broadcast by Channel 9 last week of the violent home invasion in which he assaulted a man and terrorised a family of three, including a nine-year-old boy, and the victims are demanding he pays compensation awarded by a US court.
In his first interview about the 2015 incident, with League Life’s Yvonne Sampson, Lodge said he had been "off my head" on a ''combination of sleeping pills and lots of alcohol'' when arrested at gunpoint by New York police.
Fifita, who coached Lodge in the under 16s at Patrician Brothers Blacktown and is close friends with him, said he deserved credit for turning his life around.
"I rang him the other night and told him how proud I am of him," Fifita told NRL.com. "It has been three years and everyone has come back to talk about him now. Why, because he is playing good footy.''
Fifita also revealed Lodge had helped him when he was suffering depression and spent time in rehabilitation during the 2015 off-season. He convinced Lodge to check into the same facility.
"I was the one who put him in,” Fifita said. ''He was there for me when I was in rehab two years ago and he kind of got me out, and I was there for him.
"I have been in the rehab kind of ways and I have seen how far he has come. He has been doing it for two-and-a-half or three years and he has been sober for three years.
"Try to get anyone in this league to do what he has done, he has given back to everything. To go back three years now is a bit tough. It is what it is and we have to move on from it."
According to Fairfax Media, Lodge has attended a six-week program at a New York rehab clinic, Alcohol Anonymous meetings, a six-week program at a rehab clinic in Castle Hill and weekly session at the same facility for a year.
He also worked in a soup kitchen in Emu Plains and was tested for a year for alcohol and prescription and recreational drugs without returning a positive result.
However, the NRL repeatedly rejected requests for Lodge’s return, insisting that he continued counselling, education and display exemplary off-field behaviour before finally registering a contract with the Broncos in November.
In his interview with Fox Sports, Lodge said he ''couldn't be more sorry'' for what he did and insisted he was a reformed character.
"I’ve done a lot of rehabilitation and self-reflection that I probably should have done years ago when I was 18-19 coming through the game," Lodge said.
"I didn’t get pushed to the point to have to do it and I didn’t think it’d do anything for me.
"I've probably done a couple of year's worth. I stayed in a rehab facility for six weeks and lived there with people going through addiction problems and all sorts of things.
"I've done outpatient programs, I've done counselling. It got mentioned that I hadn't done any counselling — I think I did a year and a half worth until I had to move away from Sydney and I couldn't see my regular counsellor that I'd built trust with.
"I still keep in contact with them and I think I’m on the right path now."