WHEN Andrew Fifita talks about “the coal train”, he’s not making a reference to Dave Taylor. He’s talking about an actual coal train.
“It’s when we were down in Griffith that I found it,” the NSW prop says, recalling a vivid childhood memory. “Not walking around but jumping on the trains … there was that one big coal train and it would only go five K’s an hour.
“Instead of walking, it would have been a good 2 km into town, you’d just sit on the back of the train. It would have been going about walking pace.
“We jumped the fence. All the boys would run over and jump on it.”
I’m not quite sure how we got onto the coal train. I think it may have been a question about how the 194cm prop managed to keep the weight on after years of struggling to maintain his bulk.
He admits a previous interview in which he said beer was a great assistance in this area was “not good for the kids”. Jumping a safety fence in a determined pursuit of laziness? Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.
In any case, it’s entirely likely that Fifita doesn’t even know that Gold Coast forward Taylor is called “the Coal Train”. He hadn’t even heard of at least one of his team-mates in the Origin decider a couple of weeks ago, he admits.
“I wasn’t a big fan of the footy growing up,” says Fifita, who passed up a promising rugby union career (and riding coal trains) to join Wests Tigers in 2010.
“I wasn’t the type to sit there and watch a footy game. It was tough to match the faces to the names. Even McManus , I just met him (before Origin III) and I didn’t know who he was.
“I was asking ‘who’s James McManus?’ I know a few from playing against them and that but to be honest I didn’t know who he was. Everyone’s saying he’s top tryscorer….
“I follow basketball a bit, I’m not a big fan of it. NFL… a bit of everything. Aside from that, I just like watching movies and chilling out.”
As A-List moves into its fifth year, we’re noticing a discernible trend among players in interview situations.
When the Johns Brothers were at their peak, they finished a game with a message in mind. They were canny enough to realise they weren’t speaking to journalists but to fans and the sort of leadership and influence they exercised in a team environment could also be applied to the general public.
Then, with the Super League War, we had the age of the soundbite, with players trained to use the question as part of their answer for the sake of TV and their comments sounding impressive but completely lacking any substance.
Then we had the era of scandals and gossip, when our players shut up shop completely.
Almost 20 years later, there are signs that the philosophy of our stars has come the full circle. Men like Fifita and last week’s featured player, Josh Reynolds, have stopped being scared of us and are instead trying hard to offer considered insights into themselves and their motivations, believing that being viewed positively by readers, listeners and viewers will be to their personal benefit.
“I’m still learning the game,” Andrew says at one point. “I got a lot of pressure from family and friends, saying ‘get your fend out, go do that, I want to see the x-factor back’. Flanno (Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan) has always said to me ‘when we’re coming out of our own end, go dead straight. Who cares? Don’t worry about the fancy stuff. But when we’re inside the 40 and going towards the tryline and in our good ball, do whatever you want’.
That’s right, whatever he wants. “Do a runaround, “ Fifita laughs. Or maybe a chip and chase? “I’ll give one a go. I’ve had a few in my time.”
Fifita remains wide-eyed about the Origin experience – and ambitious about what it can deliver.
“I walk past the rooms and I see some of the guys like Mitchell Pearce doing extras, Jarryd Hayne was stretching … doing the little things like icing up and for me, as an inexperienced person, I was going ‘wow, this guy’s really professional’.
“Now I know why Flanno’s always saying to prepare like a professional. I’ve never ever done that stuff. I guess, coming into Origin, it’s a big thing for me and I’ll learn a lot. I didn’t care if I was in the 17, as long as I got 18th man or something like that. Just to be close to Origin, I would learn something.
“I used to be professional but I wasn’t that professional. It’s a whole other step. I think I still have a long way to go. I’ll stretch in my room now, if I get a little niggle I’ll ice up.”
How many Origin players have memorised the pools at the 2013 World Cup? Fifita believes he should be allowed to represent Tonga if he misses out on Tim Sheens’ side.
“I really pushed to play for Tonga this year (mid-season) but they wouldn’t allow it. They’re in … I wouldn’t say the hardest pool. They’re in a good pool. If you wanted to be in any pool playing for Tonga, you want to be in that pool. I really feel they’ve got a really strong chance of getting in the semi-finals. They’re going to have a tough time with Scotland and Italy but…”
Why did his twin brother David sign with Cronulla instead of Melbourne? Just ask and you’ll get a straight answer.
“Melbourne were offering him a two-year deal but they wanted to train him up this year and give him a go next year,” Andrew responds.
“I really wanted to help him and show him the way I’ve learned and I really wanted him to be with me and his family and all the family back here. I couldn’t see him going down there on his own. He just got back from France. I said ‘give it a year, you can always do that next year. If they really want you bad, they can grab you’.
“I’m real proud of him. He’s been training by himself when he gets up, does his extras and things like that. “
And on why he is determined to make the most of every opportunity: “Football can end at any time. I realised that when I was playing with Simon Dwyer. That was shocking, that’s when I realised football could be over like that. I could be gone in a flash.
“It was a bad way to go out of the game. He’s still trying to get back into the game. He’s only 24 this year. You never know. My thoughts are with him and I think he could make it back if he really tried.”
So, to finish up: what transformed Andrew Fifita from train-hopping hobo to barnstorming Blue? We glean two things here, one straightforward, another not-so-much…
“I guess the family has come into the scenario and knowing you’ve got to take every opportunity you can,” he says. “… when it came down to it, I just put my head down and I wanted to achieve much more than first grade. I had a dream of playing first grade and I got it. Then I saw an opportunity there for more than first grade. I’ve knocked two of them off and I wish I could get the third one … and Australian jersey.”
The second? Actually, appendicitis which resulted in Fifita being rushed to hospital for surgery just over a year ago. In fact, Cronulla doctor Dave Givney organised the surgery from the sideline during a State of Origin match in which he was acting as NSW medico.
Givney wasn’t in the Blues camp this year but Fifita says it’s a direct result of the ailment that he was. “When I got my appendix out, I was watching the game. I think I was watching Warriors and I was watching the way they played. It was good to sit out from a game …
“The following week we went up to Brisbane and I went as 18th man. I knew I wasn’t going to play because I just got my appendix out but I sat in the coaches box and I watched again and I came back from that week off and I started … doing my job.”
Andrew Fifita is still on that coal train, figuratively anyway. And it’s going a lot faster than 5 KPH.
“I still feel young and if I could stay in those rep teams for years to come, I would. That would be the best thing. It’s everyone’s goal. Once you’re up the top, you don’t want to come back down.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK