Fifita spreads hope in Canty
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 team-mates 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 his culture with the Roos and while whole Rise programme is the best thing that’s ever happened to Australian football.
‘‘To ger 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 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 years, 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 tell 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.’’
Pacific Islands team ‘tier one’ Fifita said 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.
Andrew Fifita has led seminars to help troubled youth in Christchurch.