NRL beyondblue Cup: Wests Tigers focus on mental health after death of Mosese Fotuaika
Roy Masters

There are players and officials at Wests Tigers still haunted by the death of Mosese Fotuaika, the 20-year-old front-row forward who took his own life in February, 2013, shortly after sustaining a potentially season-ending pectoral muscle injury at the club’s Concord gym.

On Monday, Wests Tigers will announce their round 23 match against Manly at Leichhardt Oval next Sunday will be for the NRL beyondblue Cup.

It is intriguing that a match against Manly, the bitter rivals of Wests in the late 70s and early 80s, would be chosen, given the clashes probably challenged the mental health of the city and code.

A club spokesman said, in reference to other home-game opponents, such as the round 26 member appreciation weekend, “The other games on the calendar had pre-existing focus.”

But nothing assumes more focus at Wests Tigers than mental health, given the soul-searching that has consumed the club since Fotuaika’s death. The club has employed three education and welfare officers and the NRL’s last rating put the club No.2 in this area.

Sauaso Sue, a teammate of Fotuaika in Wests Tigers’ premiership winning under-20 team in 2012, says, “We both got the opportunity to train full-time together and then it happened in the last weights session before the break. I think about him all the time. I drive past his [Merrylands] street. It saddens me still today.”

Asked if a tragedy could recur at the club, given that no official, other than the club physiotherapist, spoke to Fotuaika, Sue says, “Our three wellbeing officers are doing a great job. A club can always improve on what it is doing but our officers, such as [former Wests Tigers and Penrith premiership player] Paul Whatuira do a lot of talks with us about mental health.”

Sue was at Campbelltown on February 28, 2013, the day of Fotuika’s death and the last training day before a short recess before the start of the NRL season.

“Some of us under-20 boys were at a function with the mayor of Campbelltown ,” he said. “We were all pretty split up. It was a chaotic day. Ben Murdoch-Masila [now playing in England] took him home. He lived around the corner.”

Apart from the match against Manly being an official occasion to remember Mosese, it is also a reminder he could have achieved Sue’s coming milestone.

“It will be my 100th game as well,” Sue says, “God willing, I’ll be up for selection.”

Wests Tigers vice-captain Chris Lawrence recalls the day: “He was in my gym group. We’d just finished weights. One of the boys drove him home and was to bring him back after changing because we were all going to have a [break up] game of cricket.”

(Murdoch-Masila did return to Fotuaika’s home but could not raise him).

Asked to describe Fotuaika, Lawrence says, “I’d only spent a pre-season with him. He was quiet. Very talented. Training the house down. I am confident he would have been a regular first grader.”

Asked if he felt haunted by the experience, he says, “Certainly disappointed. I’ve looked back and asked myself could I have done more in that situation.”

Asked if a player as distressed as Fotuaika could be effectively abandoned again by the club, Lawrence says, "The club has definitely taken the right steps with wellbeing.

“There’s been a massive change in Wests Tigers in the last few years with respect to mental health awareness. We’ve all got the message that we must break down the stigma about mental health, that we’ve got someone to go to. Plus we know there are organisations, such as beyondblue, who can be accessed.”

The chief executive of beyondblue, Georgie Harman, says of the coming NRL beyondblue Cup, "These matches are fundamental to our work and really central to the message we can give the country. Men, as a whole, are not as willing as women, to seek help. Of the eight suicides every day, six are men. More and more footballers are willing to talk openly. They are big, fit, strapping men but just as vulnerable to mental health problems as the rest of us.’

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