Though he tried valiantly to secure a new deal and prolong his career, premiership-winning prop and long-time Cronulla Sharks stalwart Andrew Fifita has called time on his storied career, claiming his 33-year-old body won't let him continue.
Fifita had originally sought to prolong his career at the Bulldogs or Manly, but the club medicals gave him a reality check that led to him reconsidering, with the Sharks confirming his decision on Tuesday afternoon.
“I had spoken to Des (Hasler) and (Canterbury coach) Cameron (Ciraldo) about helping them with some leadership in their pack next year,” Fifita told the Daily Telegraph.
“I was keen to help Cam in his first year to help get the team gelling in year one.
“The same with Manly, they've got a stack of strong youth coming through but they need a senior figure.
“What killed me was the medicals. When you're leaving a club you have an exit medical which analyses your body. The doc sat me down and ran through it all.”
It was his exit interview with Sharks doctor George Pitsis that ultimately led to the tough decision.
“The MRI showed I could keep playing, but I would need to push through a fair few things that my body needs to work on.
“I need osteotomy surgery on my left knee to realign (my) bones.
“I need my left ankle surgically straightened, a right knee construction, my nose bone is collapsing so I need a nose reconstruction.
“I need my middle finger fused, a right elbow arthroscopy and I've lost all my back teeth, so I need dental surgery and teeth implants.
The barnstorming prop gained notoriety as one of the game's most explosive big men during the early stages of his career, but after two years at Wests Tigers he went to the next level after moving to the Sharks.
In just his second year in the Shire he was awarded the Dally M Prop of the Year award, and it's an honour he would claim again in 2018 – a testament to his incredible consistency and longevity throughout his career.
His most defining moment came arguably in Cronulla's historic 2016 Grand Final victory, where he scored an iconic and match-sealing try, dragging five of the game's best defenders over the line in one of the most miraculous individual efforts seen in the modern era.
2016 BEST TRIES
#5 – Fifita 💪
— NRL (@NRL) December 4, 2016
He was also one of the leading lights in the Tongan revolution that changed the face of international rugby league, playing an important role in the national team's charge to the 2017 World Cup semi-finals.
It wasn't always fun and success for Fifita, who dealt with unwanted attention in the limelight as well, but things certainly turned on a dime after the Sharks enforcer was put into an induced coma following a freak accident on the field that saw him take a debilitating blow to the throat.
While the harrowing and near-death experience in the twilight stages of his career may have been enough to turn some people off the idea of a return to a physical game, Fifita was determined to return – although his mindset certainly changed.
“The last thing I'll do is go out and try and give my wife a hug,” Fifita told SportingNews before his return to the field in the 2022 All Stars game.
“When I first came out (of hospital) and went to the game I just wanted to go around the changeroom and say ‘make sure you go and tell your loved ones you love them. Make sure you tell them because you don't know (what could happen)'.”
His return to the field was one of the most remarkable stories of the 2022 season, and though the Sharks ultimately fell short in their pursuit of a grand final appearance, he showed that he had lost little of what made him such an intimidating presence throughout his time at the top.
Fifita's incredible career included 251 NRL games in 13 years (11 in Cronulla), 7 Tests for Australia, 10 Tests for Tonga, 6 appearances for the Indigenous All Stars, 3 appearances for City Origin and 10 State of Origin matches for New South Wales.