NRL SHARKS DRAGONS
Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has saluted Andrew Fifita for his stunning transformation from NRL rebel to stand-in Sharks captain.
With regular skipper Wade Graham (hamstring) sidelined and 2016 premiership-winning captain Paul Gallen (knee) touch and go for Sunday's trip to Canberra, Fifita is set to lead Cronulla on his own for the first time.
The 28-year-old's promotion, after sharing the captaincy with Josh Dugan against Gold Coast, is a far cry from the dark days when suspended and fined $30,000 for punching a referee at a junior match and he suffered serious depression battling a form slump and contractual issues.
"It's been a long journey for Andrew, especially here at the club," Flanagan said on Friday.
"We always knew his football ability and that's the main thing that he's concentrating on now.
"He's gone through some off-field personal issues, some mental health issues that have been well documented, so it's a great story."
Flanagan can't sing Fifita's praises loud enough, with the gentle giant leading the Sharks into the top eight for the first time this season with a series of inspirational displays in the absence of fellow senior forwards Gallen, Graham and Luke Lewis.
"He's done a fantastic job. He's really cherished and adapted to that leadership role," the coach said.
"I don't know if you're born a leader or if you become a leader, but Andrew's definitely becoming a leader and really wants to lead this team."
Regarded as a firebrand, the Test and State of Origin front-rower has been lauded for his cool and calm during the Sharks' time of need.
"It's been a real surprise and a pleasant surprise," Flanagan said.
"He's maturing and he's got a really young family. He's comfortable in his home life, so he's in a good place at the moment.
"He had a real shock earlier in the year against the Dragons when he thought he might have been gone for the season, but he's come back from that.
"He's battled weight (problems), he's still got a bit of a knee issue; got some bone bruising there and he's played huge minutes."
Flanagan will make a final call on Gallen after Saturday's captain's run.
The oldest player in the competition hasn't played for a month since suffering a medial ligament tear that was expected to sideline the 36-year-old for four to six weeks.
Having learnt from Graham's setback, the Sharks won't risk rushing Gallen or Lewis back until they're 100 per cent.
"Whilst it's a really important time of the year, there's still a lot of games to be played," Flanagan said.
"Gal will know if he's right. But he's done everything he needs to do, he's up to date and he's on track."