Former NRL rising star Manase Fainu has been jailed for at least four years and three months after he was found guilty of stabbing a youth leader during a violent and bloody brawl outside a Mormon church dance.
Fainu learned his fate on Friday afternoon inside the Parramatta District Court as he was sentenced by Judge Nanette Williams.
Once considered one of rugby league’s brightest prospects, the former Manly hooker’s NRL career is almost certainly over having not played since his arrest in October, 2019.
His lawyers have already flagged their intention to appeal the sentence.
A jury earlier this year took just a few hours to find Fainu, 24, guilty of one count of wounding a person with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
He pleaded not guilty at trial, but a jury found that he had plunged a steak knife into the back of Faamanu Levi at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Wattle Grove in southwestern Sydney on the evening of October 25, 2019.
The maximum penalty for the charge is 25 years in prison.
On Friday, Judge Williams sentenced Fainu to eight years in jail with a non-parole period of four years and three months.
With time served, he will first be eligible for release in October 2026.
His solicitor Paul McGirr previously said the “wheels are in motion” for an appeal.
Mr McGirr said that he would not launch proceedings in the Court of Criminal Appeal until after Fainu had been sentenced.
The jury accepted the Crown prosecution’s argument that Fainu stabbed Mr Levi in the back near his shoulder blade during the brawl, which also involved four of his mates against another group of men.
One eyewitness, Tony Quach, told the court he had seen the 24-year-old stab Mr Levi, puncturing his lungs and causing internal bleeding.
“The offender, who was observed to have an angry look on his face, used the steak knife and plunged it into the victim,” Judge Williams recounted from Mr Quach’s testimony.
The former NRL star then slashed the knife in an upward motion towards the victim’s face and cut his face above his eyebrow, the court heard.
Mr Quach testified he saw Fainu had one arm in a sling while the other hand held the steak knife which he used to stab Mr Levi in the church parking lot.
It was not contested during the trial that Fainu had his arm in a sling after undergoing shoulder surgery a month earlier and that he was in the carpark.
However, Fainu denied playing any part in the brawl, claiming he began back-pedalling because he feared for his safety when he heard someone yell “knife, knife”.
Earlier in the evening, two of Fainu’s friends – including Uona “Big Buck” Faingaa – were involved in an altercation on the church hall dance floor and were escorted out, the court heard.
Fainu said he voluntarily left the church grounds, apologising to the security guard on his way out the gate.
CCTV footage played during the trial showed Fainu and four of his mates pulling up in an adjoining Coles car park and jumping back into the church grounds.
Judge Williams said the former NRL star had “scouted out the scene” when driving in before deliberately taking a knife with him when he left the car.
“I have found that there was some planning involved,” she said.
The footage showed Fainu and his friends using a fire hydrant to boost themselves over a tall brick wall into the parking lot.
Fainu covered his head with a white towel, which the judge determined was a calculated attempt to conceal his identity from the surveillance camera.
Mr Fainu testified that he went to the dance to help one of his friends, Uona “Big Buck” Faingaa, collect money he was owed by a man for a concreting job.
He gave evidence that he had told his friends he would go inside to collect Mr Faingaa’s money by himself, but they followed him over the fence before the brawl erupted a short time later.
The jury ultimately accepted the prosecution’s version of events that Fainu had ended the brawl when he stabbed Mr Levi.
“The victim was just an innocent citizen going about his business on church grounds,” Judge Williams said.
“It was an unprovoked attack on the victim and his friends.”
In a letter to the court, the victim explained that the brutal attack had changed his life forever.
“The events of this night will stay with me my whole life,” he wrote.
“I now find myself guarded and scared. The fact that this attack took place at a church event … made me realise nowhere is safe.”
Mr Levi said he had been trying to “do the right thing” by breaking up the fight inside the church dance hall but he had been rewarded with a knife in the back.
He said the attack had left him unable to pursue his dream of becoming a police officer due to his lingering health issues and constant concern about being assaulted.
“I am always watching my back and live in fear that I will be attacked again,” he told the court.
“All I have left is hope and God.”
Despite the pain and fear, Mr Levi said he felt sorry for Fainu and would pray for him.
The stabbing cut Fainu’s career short at a time when legendary former Manly Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler said the hooker “had the world at his feet”.
“I have absolutely no doubt that he was destined for greatness,” the NRL coaching great said in a statement read in court.
He believed Fainu, like other young athletes, had experienced a “Superman Complex” which meant he thought he could not be harmed, an experience exacerbated by the pressures of elite sport.
“Given another chance, Manase could be a person who others could look up to, as a phoenix of sorts who would do anything to improve himself … and would rise again better and wiser,” Mr Hasler said.
The judge acknowledged the ex-NRL star had already been punished through the loss of his lucrative career and the “intense” media scrutiny throughout his legal battle.
Yet she said the “violent and brutal attack” warranted a full-time custodial sentence.
“The carriage and use of knives in public places is untenable in any civilised society,” Judge Williams said.
She also noted there was “no real finding of remorse” given the former Sea Eagles player maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings.
The judge noted the impact of Fainu’s offending on his “loving and supportive family” who would have benefited from his rugby career.
His mother cried as Fainu was led out of the courtroom to return to prison.