Craig Fitzgibbon has shed some light on Andrew Fifita’s final year at Cronulla after the prop fought back from a life-threatening injury to eventually bow out of the game in 2022.
“He nearly died the year before – even getting him back on the field… I was just watching to see where it went,” Fitzgibbon told The Bye Round Podcast with James Graham.
Andrew Fifita suffers horrific throat injury against Newcastle
Fifita was placed in an induced coma last year after copping an accidental hit to the throat that was later confirmed to have caused a severe laryngeal injury.
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After the Sharks’ loss to Newcastle in Redcliffe, Fifita was pictured being assessed out on the field after complaining in the sheds of a difficulty with swallowing. The forward was then immediately transferred to Royal Brisbane Hospital after his care was escalated by the paramedics in charge.
He was operated on in a bid to repair his fractured larynx but suffered complications with the surgery.
“They ended up cutting my neck,” Fifita told Nine.
“[The doctor] said if they did it a minute later, I would have died.
“Then they realised they clipped an artery in my neck, and I was bleeding all through my lungs, so I was drowning in my own blood.”
The Tongan international was in an induced coma for what turned out to be a week, revealing he was shocked to find out this fact afterwards.
“I heard the doc say, ‘Andrew it’s time to wake up’,” Fifita told News Corp.
“By then I’m f****** screaming… he squeezed my hand…Then, I woke up. I thought it was an hour. I didn’t know it was five days.”
Andrew Fifita is ‘too tough for his own good’
Fitzgibbon admitted that while he harboured concerns around the rehabilitation process for Fifita, he was impressed by the former representative’s attitude while he attempted to come back from the frightening ordeal.
“He’s a good guy – he’s misunderstood in a lot of ways,” Fitzgibbon said.
“He’s incredibly loyal and he loves the club- that was evident straight away how much he cared for the club and his teammates.”
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Despite still being in the preliminary stages of recovery during the pre-season, Fifita shocked his coach when he came to his office for a discussion a month or so out from the start of the 2022 season.
“Prior to the All Stars week,” Fitzgibbon remembered, “he just walked in and said, ‘I want to play All Stars’ and I just looked at him and went, ‘You’re mad! Are you serious?’ And he went ‘Yeah.’
“So, I said, ‘Alright, if you want to play All Stars, this is what I need to see from you in the next couple of weeks.’ He was still getting going again- not too many have come back from an injury of that magnitude.
“He was getting going again but he wasn’t trying to shortcut anything. He was just learning how to train again.
“I said, ‘If you want to play All Stars, this is what I’ve got to see from you’. And he just got it done.”
Fitzgibbon revealed he and his coaching staff were constantly blown away by Fifita’s application in training after the pair had shared a “frank” discussion where the coach had laid out the ground rules and his expectations to the veteran.
“Andrew has got an incredible spirit,” he said. “He just thinks he can get things done and what happened was we kept offering him the opportunity to get stronger and he took the challenge.
“I honestly reckon he is too tough for his own good, Andrew. I’m shocked that he managed to find a way through the season the way that he did.”
The 33-year-old considered prolonging his career after he announced his departure from the Sharks, yet the injury toll proved too much even for Fifita to overcome after playing through the pain barrier.
He listed a number of surgeries he would have needed to have in order to keep playing, including osteotomy surgery on his knee and a shoulder reconstruction.
“He barely missed a session in the year,” Fitzgibbon said.
“He had a couple of little niggles with the calf and maybe a slight hammy thing in the early stages of the season, but he barely missed a session.
“Even at big training days, he was on the field pretty much the whole year. It was remarkable.”