Pact men: Close mates reunite to fulfil a dream
June 25, 2013
Michael Carayannis, Michael Chammas - SMH
The pact was made behind closed doors. One made by thousands of aspiring rugby league players around this time of year. Still in their teens, Aaron Woods and Andrew Fifita dreamed of playing together for NSW. It was during moments as roommates that an unbreakable bond between the pair developed. A brotherhood that went deeper than teammates. When one of the brothers left for another club, it only strengthened their resolve to be reunited again.
Fifita beams with a smile. The one you often see worn by a proud parent. Sure, he is happy talking about his Origin debut just weeks earlier and how he is looking forward to the hostile Queensland reception. But when you ask him about Woods joining him as a NSW player, well, he looks at you dotingly.
‘‘Oh man, I was going off my nut texting him when I found out he was in the team,’’ Fifita said. ‘‘I told him I was so happy. We are tight. He has got his gig and he is ready to rumble. He is like a baby brother to me, I’ll always treat him like that. He is the biggest kid. I wrote a tweet that I can’t wait to play with my brother again.’’
These two grew close playing two seasons in the under-20s for Wests Tigers. They were roommates for away trips and played together in the Tigers’ 2009 under-20s grand final loss. Fifita featured in Woods’ NRL debut in 2011, before leaving for Cronulla at the end of that season.
‘‘We always said, ‘Imagine if we played Origin together’,’’ Fifita said. ‘‘First it was playing first grade together and then when we made that we started talking about Origin. When he found out I was leaving the Tigers he told me, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll catch up in Origin’ and we have finally got that.’’
Their reunion comes with mixed feeling for Tigers captain Robbie Farah. Had Farah had his way, the pair would still be turning out weekly for his club side, but the NSW hooker said he expected them to be Origin mainstays. ‘‘They were both players that I knew had big futures in the game,’’ Farah said. ''Woodsy, the way he has been playing for us the last 18 months, has just been top notch. He’s pretty much been leading our pack - without him I’d hate to think how we’d be going. He’s a senior player at our club even at such a young age. When I’m gone, he’s a captain of that club.
‘‘It was disappointing when [Fifita] left because we knew how good he could be. He’s got that X-factor about him. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s mobile and he’s playing long minutes. It’s disappointing to see him doing so well at another club but I’m so happy for him that he’s here. Hopefully for us they’ll be around playing together for the next 10 years and terrorising Queensland for the rest of their careers.’’
While relationship-wise they are close, the pair are distinct opposites in terms of personality.
Despite Fifita being two years older, he was more of a free spirit who thrived with his natural ability. Woods, 22, has worked hard on his game and his dedication separated him from most teens according to their former under-20s coach Grant Jones.
‘‘In team meetings as an 18-year-old, he had opinions on things like who should be captain,’’ Jones said of Woods. ''He wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion and back it up with constructive argument. But when he went to the NRL team, he looked at the squad and thought, ‘There’s Todd Payten, the most experienced forward, I’m going to learn more from him than anybody else’. So he would partner up with Todd in the gym. Normally the young blokes go with the young blokes and they don’t mix with the older blokes.
‘‘But Woodsy would go to Todd and say, ‘I want to train with you and I want to learn everything you know’. He’d be like that with the staff too. He was regularly going to see the strength and conditioning coach, the assistant coach or the nutritionist … he’d just get as much knowledge out of those people as possible.’’
It was that application that allowed Woods to overcome a career-threatening hamstring injury that all but ended his final season in the under-20s, in 2010.
Woods said he always wanted to learn. ‘‘I hung around Toddy because everyone used to say he was a halfback in a front-rowers body,’’ he said. ‘‘He was enormous for me. He was the leading front-rower so in the gym I’d try and beat him in the weights and on the field. I like to know why I’m doing something and for what reason. I’m not happy with just being told what to do. I’ve always questioned all my coaches because you need to know why we’re doing that play and what’s the benefit of it.’’
Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall have emphatically denied it, but according to their former teammate Andrew Fifita, the rumours are true: the Wests Tigers are a divided club.
Along with fellow prop Bryce Gibbs, Fifita was unwanted by the Tigers for this season, and the pair have quickly found their feet with resurgent Cronulla, who are now on a four-match hot streak.
The Tigers, 1-5 to start the season, have struggled with form and injuries in the forwards this year, with many suggesting they made a big mistake by turning their back on game-breaking Fifita and players’ favourite Gibbs.
Speaking after the Sharks’ win over St George Illawarra on Saturday night, Fifita didn’t sugarcoat what he perceives are the differences between his old club and the Sharks.
“We have an unbelievable bond, we’re so tight. Compared to the Tigers everyone is so tight,” Fifita told Channel Nine’s Sunday Footy Show.
“We have the same dressing rooms, it’s just more of a friendship. We’re all just brothers and it’s no split groups, no nothing, it’s who we are.”
Fifita’s comments won’t impress the senior playing group at the Tigers, who have publicly taken offence on numerous occasions to innuendo suggesting the squad is broken into factions.
The underrated Gibbs has been quietly going about his business for the Sharks since returning from injury and like Fifita, had arguably his best performance in Cronulla colours against the Dragons.
Gibbs was a passionate clubman for the Tigers, popular among teammates and a front-rower with good line-speed and a willingness to get his hands dirty.
“He’s the glue to any team he’ll be in,” responded Gibbs’ front-row partner Ben Ross when asked if the Tigers would regret letting the Western Suburbs junior go given their current predicament.
“He gets the boys together and we have a lot of fun around him and he makes us more of a team than people would really see.
“He’s that guy that will put on that sneaky little hit that you need or do the little crappy things that other people don’t want to do.
“He’s there and doing that and it’s good to have him by my side.”
he seems to have a lot of brothers