Former Griffith High student and rugby league international Andrew Fifita has returned to his old school to mentor students.
The NRL premiership winner, who is now a qualified counsellor working at Sydney school James Cook, was in Griffith this week (27-28 March) for a series of one-on-one and group sessions with boys and girls at what is now Murrumbidgee Regional High.
“I know where I come from, that’s the main thing,” he said. “I don’t want to give up on the kids here, I’ve seen in the past what it can lead to. The suicide rates in Griffith are higher than the rest of the state, probably Australia.
“This is my old school, I always love to get back. The first thing I did [when I won the NRL premiership with Cronulla] was grab the trophy and come back home. Because nobody from a country town is going to get a chance to touch that trophy, but you lead from example and hopefully they’ll follow suit.”
Deputy principal Richard Wiseman is delighted with Mr Fifita’s generosity.
“He’s always been fantastic with the time he’s given to his old Griffith High, now Murrumbidgee Regional High. He’s always shown a keen interest in the welfare of our kids. We’ve had him down for a couple of days, this is our second block, we’d love to make it ongoing.”
The dual international, who represented both Tonga and Australia in rugby league, says he can personally identify with those who are having trouble at school.
“I’ve got a record around here. I’m going to be honest, I sometimes [got into trouble]. I wasn’t the best student. I had to do Year 12 over three years because of my bowel conditions. School wasn’t the best place for me.
“[The students whom I mentor are] at the pinpoint of which way they’re going to choose – would you like to go down this route or the other one. I’m trying to mentor them to stay on track. The main priority is to stick with sport and then have an academic career as well. It’s up to them.
“We struggle to get counsellors and psychs back here, that’s the main thing for me to come back, to help out … you look at our local hospital, there are no doctors here, our young teens have to go to Wagga. They just check them out in three days anyway. Our high priority should be here. I’d rather they were here with me rather than out on the streets.
“The kids know who I am. They see me and think, ‘If he can do it, I can do it too’… if I got my HSC, anyone can get it.”
He tries to come back at least twice a term, saying he also enjoys spending time back in the Riverina.
“I miss everything about Griffith. I miss the food. If it were up to me, I’d be moving back here but all my family are from Sydney and we are very family orientated.”
Year 11 student Elka Miller, who wants to pursue an NRL career, relished the opportunity to talk to one of her idols.
“It’s great to have him here, a lot of people look up to him, especially me.”
Mr Fifita said if he didn’t make it big in the NRL, he’d probably still be in Griffith, working for chicken producers Baiada. As it happened, he had a distinguished 12-year NRL career, playing 252 games for the West Tigers and Cronulla Sharks, as well as 10 State of Origin appearances for the NSW Blues. He retired in 2022, when he also completed a diploma in counselling. He continues to have a coaching role with the Sharks.