The very great ones have ‘time’.
Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith play physical chess. It was the same for Andrew Johns, Darren Lockyer, Brad Fittler.
Jimmy Smith told me a yarn about playing with Fittler. Freddy was almost serene, pulling off brilliant plays under the pump.
Most players run about in a fog of war. For most players, footy is hell for leather. Headless chook stuff, froth and bother, sweat, jolting.
Everyone plays with all they’ve got.
Andrew Fifita plays with all he’s got. Always has.
And occasionally, he’ll get it wrong. It’s the nature of the beast. He’s a front-row forward. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves throws 120kg of muscle around each week – occasionally some of it’s going to go off on a tangent. Take out an innocent – or in Josh Mcguire’s case, not so much.
It’s footy. People are human. It happens.
And some of the commentary around Fifita’s big-shot-gone-wrong in the Sharks’ one-point loss to New Zealand Warriors last week is misguided.
Judge a man when you’ve walked in his shoes. As a boy, Fifita walked in and out of Baxter Detention Centre. Growing up he knew a few of them – Kariong, Cobham. He visits them now, tells kids about his journey. Doesn’t judge. Has a laugh with boys he sees a lot of himself in.
When Fifita was younger, there was a riot, a fight with weapons. I asked him once, what sort of weapons. Like, broadswords?
He laughed – whatever they could get their hands on.
And there’s the thing; what most of us would find… I dunno, just… like a gang fight with weapons… scenes from Braveheart played out in Mount Druitt – Andrew called Saturday night with the boys.
Aged 16 he was doing whatever he wanted. You blame his folks? They told him to do stuff, he was big as he is now, he told ‘em no. Did whatever he wanted. Into everything.
They sent him bush, to Grafton, with family, his uncles. He hooked up with some good young blokes and played good footy. Found some role models, as they say. Nearly went to the Brumbies. Came back to Sydney town six-foot-four and a man, of sorts.
And now he’s 30 and very much one. He’s a leader at the Sharks. And he leads, as his coach John Morris said last week, with passion, with inspiration.
And sometimes it goes wrong.
Saturday night in Auckland he tried to pull off the ‘big’ play and motivate the troops. The Sharks were on a four-match losing streak and the game was on the line. It needed someone to step up. To lift.
And Andrew did. Got it wrong. Went off to the sin bin and later the judiciary. Shoulder charge. You can’t do them these days. Viliame Kikau got two weeks for one wasn’t one.
Matt Dufty got let off after being charged with one, as did Billy Slater when his shoulder knocked a winger into Row Z before the 2018 grand final.
Fifita, like all the big units, the bad boys most of all, is judged differently to Slater.
Bad boys always going to get the short end of the stick there.
Andrew knows that.
And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts had a smaller man ripped off the same move Fifita did – that being a ‘big’ front-on shot on a bloke moments after he’s passed the ball – little man cops a penalty. Stays on the field. Betcha.
Which is no bad thing. People want “consistency” but what you end up with is consistently wrong, as in the case of the knock-back which is dead, replaced with touch footy’s drop-ball rule.
Shaun Johnson’s pass last night to Sosaia Feki went backwards – or at worst “flat” – out of his hands. It flat-out did. But you – yes, you, league fan – wanted “consistency”. And now all passes that float forwards are forward, when the rules says they’re not.
I could go on.
For now, though, we’re into bat for Andrew, the great berserker, and talisman of the Sharks, who got a play wrong and was sent off, and doesn’t deserve the grief of those bagging him for it.
Of course you can criticise him for it. This is not to excuse Fifita. It was a bad play and he deserved the penalty, if not the sin bin and time off.
But it was a split-second decision on a play that went wrong, but could’ve been golden.
And we should park the moral judgement on a footballer doing his best.
Walk in his shoes, inhabit his mind.
A footballer’s mind, they’re acting and reacting. Their synapses are darting all over the shop. The forwards, particularly, they run their hardest at the opposition – it takes a shot of adrenaline every time.
Playmakers can still a little frosty, even detached. Smith and Cronk, physical chess.
A big unit like Fifita is more a gladiator in the ring.
White heat of battle, they’re not making dispassionate decisions. There’s no time to weigh up the pros and cons of a particular action. It’s hit and be hit. And repeat.
I had a yarn once with Mick Byrne, the Wallabies skills guy. He played for Hawthorn years ago and taught All Blacks first five-eighth Daniel Carter how to nail a drop punt.
Mick talked my ear off about executing skills under pressure, and I forget most of it. But it was effectively about practising something so much it’s learnt instinct.
And our Andrew has plenty of that.
But here is a thing: he’s human – it’s going to go wrong on occasion. Doesn’t make him a mug lair. It wasn’t a ‘brain snap’ – it was a big play that didn’t work.
If he’d pulled off the “tackle” a split second earlier, jolted the ball free, he’s a hero, they’re patting his back. Phil Rothfield’s giving him a rap in the paper.
Split second the other way, he’s copping a week off and a healthy share of blame for the Sharks loss.
Good things and bad in the mad fog of war.