When most were happy to stay on the bus at the Wests Tigers, Ava Seumanufagai decided to get off.
It was nothing personal with new coach Ivan Cleary. The powerful front-rower enjoyed a month under Cleary’s tutelage before he signed with the Cronulla Sharks in May for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
While Cleary is a first-class coach, Seumanufagai is not convinced he is a miracle worker, even though he took the New Zealand Warriors to the 2008 preliminary final and 2011 grand final before guiding the Penrith Panthers to the 2014 preliminary final.
Seumanufagai, who had five years at Concord Oval, still thinks the Tigers returning to the NRL finals might be a year or two away. He’s never gone beyond 26 rounds and doesn’t like that in his resume.
“The decision for me was more about myself. I just needed to move. I needed a change,” the 26-year-old told NRL.com.
"So that’s what I based my decision on, not on the changes in the coaching staff.
“I’d been there for a while; I was after a breath of fresh air; we were in the papers all the time. It does get to you. So I made my decision relatively early on in the season.”
Seumanufagai knows he’s up against premiership-winning props in Andrew Fifita and Matt Prior for a starting spot, but he’s not fussed if he’s named in the 13 or on the interchange list.
“I just want to play finals. If they want me off the bench or starting I don’t care,” he said. “I haven’t played any finals footy yet so to be able to play in the finals would be massive for me.”
Certainly there are other NRL clubs that could propel Seumanufagai on his finals quest. So why the Sharks?
"Because it seemed Flanno (coach Shane Flanagan) and the boys had something really good going on here. From the wooden spoon to a premiership in the space of a few years. It’s obviously a winning culture.
“You get a lot tighter as you go through adversity. You’ve seen that at the Sharks. The culture seems to be player-driven. If they want to change things up and improve it comes from the ground up and not the top down. I wanted to come here and be a part of that culture.” :crazy
Interestingly Flanagan didn’t use that in his sales pitch to get the 114kg prop on his roster. In fact they didn’t even speak while negotiations were in progress.
“I’d already signed before I spoke with him,” Seumanufagai said. “The following week after we (the Tigers) played them (in Round 9) the texts started coming like ‘Looking forward to working with you’, ‘Anything you want to know just call’. It was all good positive stuff.”
Flanagan is fairly chuffed at securing his signature.
“He’s got a really big motor and can play good minutes,” Flanagan told NRL.com.
“He’s a different build to my other two. Matt Prior is tall and athletic and Andrew (Fifita) is a bigger body. Ava is kind of in between those two. He adds good shape to our front row. They will all play but I can’t say yet who starts and who comes off the bench. It’s a good dilemma to have.”
The presence of Fifita and Prior, alongside Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis, is part of the strong attraction for Seumanufagai to Southern Cross Group Stadium.
“I really want to bring in a bit of ball-playing into my game. I want to become more skilful with my footwork and offloads,” he said.
He now has some of the best mentors in rugby league to do just that. Fifita and Gallen registered 53 offloads each after 26 rounds in 2017. The Sharks were the only team to have two in the NRL top-five for offloads.
Fifita’s dancing feet had him at a club-high 94 tackle busts. Gallen (57) and Lewis (53) were the only other forwards in the Sharks’ top-five alongside outside backs Valentine Holmes and Sosaia Feki.
Seumanufagai continues the tradition of Tigers players moving to the Sutherland Shire.
Fifita, Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan have preceded him but didn’t influence his decision.
“I was a Parramatta junior so never got to play with those guys.”