Andrew Fifita’s candid disclosure last week has become potentially the most expensive interview in Australian sporting history after the Canterbury Bulldogs confirmed the superstar prop would no longer be joining their ranks in 2015.
The Bulldogs’ trumpeting of the Cronulla powerhouse’s signature on a four-year deal worth $3.4 million – making him the highest front-row earner in the code’s history – was the talk of the NRL season’s opening fortnight. But after declaring on Friday he wished he had chosen to switch to rugby union instead of changing NRL clubs, Fifita suddenly finds himself a free agent for next season once again.
“After signing a memorandum of understanding with Andrew we’ve not been able to agree on the final terms of his NRL playing contract and have ceased negotiations with his management,” said Bulldogs chief executive Raelene Castle.
Rugby league fans are a fickle bunch and their former darling will discover there are few back-slappers in limbo-land.
Little reading between the lines is required to decipher that the Bulldogs backed out of the deal due to Fifita’s ill-conceived comments. Clubs expect a certain amount of promotional bang for their buck. So when the Bulldogs’ soon-to-be highest-paid player admits publicly he regrets agreeing to join the club, they had little option but to jettison him.
Fifita was arguably the breakout star of 2013 – Wests Tigers discard to Test star in the space of 18 months. His herculean performances for Cronulla marked him as the freshest front-row talent to emerge in decades, habitually topping the tackle and metres gained counts as well as becoming the first prop in 32 years to lead a club’s season try scoring tally. He was New South Wales’ most dangerous player in his maiden Origin campaign, before celebrating in Australia’s World Cup success at the end of a whirlwind year.
But rugby league fans are a fickle bunch and their former darling will discover there are few back-slappers in limbo-land.
The timing of the 24-year-old’s fateful interview was as bizarre as its content, just 17 days after he was unveiled as a 2015 recruit by Canterbury. In it, Fifita described his love of union as a junior and his desire to eventually join the 15-a-side ranks. But his most eyebrow-raising comment went thus: “If I could go back now, I wish I chose rugby and then I wouldn’t be getting all the s*** I’ve been catching now.”
Fifita was being a shade naive; switching clubs is certain to attract some supporter backlash and ‘traitor’ barbs, but defecting to a rival code is seen as indefensible – as Sam Burgess found out recently.
In an era when clubs’ loyalty to players and vice versa are more fragile than Justin Hodges’ hamstrings, he may be seen as too big of a risk for a massive outlay.
The big question is: where to now for Fifita? A deal with the Australian Rugby Union would seem a likely option, given his recent reflections. But his market value will have inevitably decreased in the wake of this week’s debacle; the ARU would all of sudden find itself in a much stronger bargaining position.
Furthermore, the prospects of Fifita making a successful transition are sketchy at best. He does not possess the physique or genuine pace to make the move from rugby league forward to rugby union midfield back as Sonny Bill Williams did and Sam Burgess hopes to do, while league forwards making the grade in union packs at the elite level can be counted on one hand.
The initial reaction from the cash-strapped ARU did not exactly amount to a warm embrace. “If Andrew wanted to talk to us, it would need to be for rugby reasons and not based on the earning capacity he could demand in league,” a spokesman said.
“We wont have any further comment on this matter, and as far as we are aware, we are not involved in his current or future plans.”
If Fifita decides he wants to stay with Cronulla, he would be prudent to go to club management with cap very much in hand. The leviathan prop reportedly opted for the Bulldogs deal after being advised the Sharks would not be able to increase their tabled offer of $700,000-a-year to stay beyond this season. He will be incredibly lucky to pocket that sort of coin at Cronulla now, and he will be required to do the bulk of the convincing rather than the other way around.
There are several rival NRL outfits in the market for a marquee front-rower, but it remains to be seen whether they are willing to overlook Fifita’s wistful rugby union yearnings; in an era when clubs’ loyalty to players and vice versa are more fragile than Justin Hodges’ hamstrings, he may be seen as too big of a risk for a massive outlay.
The latest development will only amplify calls for the NRL to introduce a trade window, as happens in the AFL.
South Sydney is a probable candidate as the heavyweights search for a big-name replacement for Burgess. With Tim Mannah potentially looking at his options beyond 2014, Parramatta seems like a good fit. Although uprooting his young family from Sydney is an unlikely option, Brisbane, Newcastle and Canberra are crying out for a prop of Fifita’s quality and youth. Manly need a gun front-rower more than any club, but their salary cap constraints are well-documented. Sonny Bill Williams’ departure at the end of the year will free up space for the Sydney Roosters to make a play for Fifita if they so desire.
The beauty of the situation for potential suitors is Fifita’s asking price – and more importantly the space he would take up in their cap – will be significantly lower than it was three weeks ago.
The decision to pull the deal has forced a rethink in regards to the Bulldogs’ front-row picture. Sam Kasiano seemed certain to be moved on to make room for Fifita after the Bulldogs also re-signed James Graham, but the Kiwi Test star may now stay at Belmore. It will also free up cash to address line-up areas of more pertinent concern, such as halfback and fullback.
When Fifita signed with Canterbury, there was widespread discontent expressed over yet another star player committing to another club while still having a full season to play with their current team. The latest development will only amplify calls for the NRL to introduce a trade window, as happens in the AFL. The present free-for-all has once again proved to be inherently flawed.