Fi­fita shares joy in Christchurch

Taranaki Daily News - - Sport - TONY SMITH

NRL star An­drew Fi­fita may be pre­par­ing for Tonga’s first Rugby League World Cup play­off game, but he’s still found time to spread a mes­sage of hope at a Christchurch’s youth jus­tice fa­cil­ity.

Fi­fita has a con­nec­tion to Christchurch where Tonga will meet Le­banon in the World Cup quar­ter­fi­nal on Satur­day.

His brother-in-law lives in the city and he says ‘‘it’s quite spe­cial ev­ery time I come back to Christchurch’’.

The Aus­tralian-born fron­trower came to Christchurch 12 months ago fresh from win­ning the NRL grand fi­nal with the Cronulla Sharks.

‘‘Last year, I had a big thing here,’’ he re­called af­ter Tonga’s team train­ing in Christchurch on Wed­nes­day.

‘‘I held a cou­ple of sem­i­nars, I got to play in a tour­na­ment and I got to rep­re­sent Tonga last year here in Christchurch in the lit­tle Pa­cific Se­ries they’ve got here. ‘‘That was a mas­sive hon­our. ‘‘I know the peo­ple all around me [in Christchurch this week]. It’s been phe­nom­e­nal. Ev­ery night I’ve been out with fam­i­lies, giv­ing back.’’

On his 2016 visit, Fi­fita spoke at a sui­cide pre­ven­tion sem­i­nar in Christchurch, telling his young au­di­ence he, too, had had ‘‘trou­bled teenage years’’ and shar­ing about how he had bat­tled and over­come de­pres­sion.

He vis­ited the youth jus­tice fa­cil­ity then and was back this week.

‘‘It was good to see there’s only a cou­ple of fa­mil­iar faces I’d seen last year, the rest are out.

‘‘I had a few words to them about dreams and goals, and what they can achieve. That was the best thing about it.

‘‘It’s about giv­ing back while I’m here.’’

Fi­fita, 28, said he likes ‘‘work­ing with kids, it’s some­thing I want to do when I fin­ish [play­ing rugby league].

‘‘They get a buzz out of it, we get a buzz out of it, [there’s] a lot of smil­ing faces].’’

Fi­fita and his team­mates have given New Zealand’s Ton­gan com­mu­nity some­thing to smile about too in the last few weeks es­pe­cially af­ter their his­toric first win over the Ki­wis last week­end.

He wasn’t sur­prised to see a big Ton­gan turnout at Christchurch Air­port last Sun­day, but ex­pects there’s more to come yet.

‘‘I played in the Pa­cific Se­ries last year, and there was a fair bit [of Ton­gan sup­port] there.

‘‘It’s a mas­sive com­mu­nity down here.

‘‘I hope ev­ery­one comes out this week­end just to see some real qual­ity foot­ball.

‘‘It’s go­ing to be a tough match, es­pe­cially against Le­banon, they’ve got a great core [of play­ers].’’

Fi­fita feels ‘‘blessed’’ with his rugby league ca­reer, ‘‘es­pe­cially this year’’.

A 2013 Rugby World Cup win­ner with Aus­tralia, he was called up for the Kan­ga­roos for last May’s Anzac test win over the Ki­wis in Can­berra.

‘‘I’m su­per thank­ful to Mal [Meninga] in ac­cept­ing me back into the his cul­ture with the Roos and while whole Rise pro­gramme is the best thing that’s ever hap­pened to Aus­tralian foot­ball.

‘‘To get the green the green and gold [jumper] again and get to win down in Can­bera was awe­some... and I got to wear it again at the end of the year on my first PNG tour.’’

Fi­fita feels he has ‘‘pretty much ticked ev­ery singe box’’ in terms of ca­reer goals now he’s ‘‘worn the Ton­gan jersey at a World Cup’’.

‘‘I love rep­re­sent­ing Aus­tralia, it’s where I grew up, it’s where my fam­ily lives and when you get the green and gold jersey it’s a mas­sive achieve­ment.

‘‘But af­ter vis­it­ing fam­ily [in Tonga] a cou­ple of yers, back, I knew the right thing to do.’’

The right thing, in Fi­fifa’s mind, was to ‘‘sup­port my fa­ther’s her­itage’’ and turn out for Tonga,.

‘‘That kind of played around in my head, it just took the courage to stand up to it.’’

He ad­mits he was ‘‘want­ing to tel Mal’’ Meninga ear­lier, but ‘‘I just had to sleep on it’’.

‘‘In the back of my mind, I was think­ing what’s best for my fam­ily and the fu­ture.

‘[But] this year has been about giv­ing back to my­self.

‘‘I feel I give too much out to other peo­ple, and it’s time to sat­isfy my needs.

‘‘I just wanted to rep­re­sent Tonga at a World Cup.’’

Fi­fita said it was ‘‘an ab­so­lute priv­i­lege’’ to be part of the first Ton­gan team to make the World Cup play­offs, and he hopes the party isn’t over yet.

‘‘I wear my heart on my sleeve. ‘‘As you can see with our games so far, it’s quite emo­tional.

‘‘It’s not just the play­ers who get a buzz out of this, it’s the fans.

‘‘What we are do­ing for Ton­gan rugby league on the world stage, from the out­side it’s mind blow­ing, but for us, we want more things to hap­pen for our lit­tle, tiny is­land.’’

Fi­fita hopes the Mate Ma’a’s suc­cess and higher pro­file will give grass­roots rugby league a big boost in Tonga.

He would also like to see a Pa­cific Is­lands team play Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Eng­land in the Four Na­tions.

‘‘If I asked you to pick five play­ers from ev­ery Pa­cific Is­land team, I guar­an­tee they are go­ing to match any tier one team in the world.

‘‘I don’t re­ally like hear­ing the whole first tier-sec­ond tier thing.

‘‘At the end of the day, we are a na­tion too. Tonga is my coun­try.

‘‘Why can’t we be matched up with these blokes?’’

Tonga’s train­ing ses­sions in Christchurch been fo­cused yet fun - with laugh­ter and mu­sic min­gling.

But Fi­fita said they are dead set se­ri­ous about the task at hand.

Le­banon would be no pushovers, he said.

‘‘They’ve got a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence in the spine, they’ve got a great leader up front, Mooky [Tim Mannah] is cap­tain of Par­ra­matta.

‘‘It’s s go­ing to be a mas­sive game for us.

‘‘In say­ing that, it is our first fi­nals and we are pre­par­ing like it’s go­ing to be our last.

‘‘It’s do or die now, any­thing can hap­pen.’’

RE­NEE MCKAY

An­drew Fi­fita shows his de­light af­ter Tonga’s win over the Ki­wis.

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