Nu Brown Primed For Breakout Year
Cronulla utility and Hornby junior Fa’amanu Brown was back in Christchurch for last weekend’s highly successful Pacific Series tournament at Wainoni Park, where Commentary Box Sports journalist and Canterbury Rugby League media officer Will Evans caught up with the 21-year-old about the Sharks’ NRL premiership success, the off-field troubles of his high-profile teammates, his goals for 2017 and the potential of playing a World Cup match in his hometown.
The aftermath of Cronulla’s euphoric maiden grand final triumph has been blotted by separate off-field dramas surrounding controversial duo Ben Barba and Andrew Fifita, but young utility Fa’amanu Brown says the Sharks squad is standing behind their embattled teammates.
Last week news broke that Barba had test positive to cocaine in the days following Cronulla’s win over Melbourne in the decider – his second failed drug test, which attracts a mandatory 12-match ban under NRL rules.
Barba, the first try-scorer in the grand final, left for a rehab stint in Thailand, while the Sharks released the fullback from the final year of his contract.
Fifita, who like Barba has had several transgressions and personal problems during his career, scored the winning try to cap a brilliant grand final performance, but the dynamic prop was left out of the Kangaroos’ Four Nations squad two days late due to behavioural issues.
Christchurch product Brown debuted for the Sharks as a 19-year-old five-eighth during the club’s strife-torn 2014 campaign, effectively replacing sacked bad boy Todd Carney, and revealed he formed a tight bond with Barba following the troubled superstar’s arrival in the Shire from the Broncos at the end of that season.
“When Benny first moved to Sydney, he was alone because he had his family and his kids still in Brisbane, so I was pretty much stuck with him for two months and I had a close relationship with him,” Brown told Commentary Box Sports
“It’s quite sad to see (what has happened), but everyone has their own story and I still love the guy.
“He’s done a lot for me and the majority of the boys. He’s one of our brothers and all of us have texted him to say we hope he’s recovering really well.”
Barba’s career is in limbo – if and when he rejoins Cronulla or links with another NRL club, he still has a half-season suspension to serve. But Brown remains optimistic we’ll see him back in the sky blue, black and white jumper.
“I hope so, 12 games is a long time but hopefully he comes back because he has a massive impact on our team, he’s one of our spine players,” Brown says.
“I’m sure he come back better than ever. He’s had a lot of downs and he’s always bounced back, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him bounce back again.”
Brown spoke to Commentary Box Sports during his annual visit to his hometown, where he attended the inaugural Pacific Series tournament at Wainoni Park, featuring Samoan, Tonga, Cook Islands, Fijian, Papua New Guinean, Maori and Pakeha teams made up of Canterbury-based players.
The guest of honour was none other than State of Origin star Fifita, who ended up playing for the Toko Tonga team (as a halfback!), and gave soul-baring talks about his battle with depression and attempted suicide.
For all the negative publicity and lamentable off-field incidents, Fifita’s kindness and generosity is far more representative of who he is, according to Brown.
“A lot of people see the tough side and the angry side of Andrew, but when you actually get to know him he’s a really teddy-bear.
“He shared that at the opening ceremony for the competition, and a lot of people were quite shocked that he’s like that.
“He’s a real softy and he’s come here and opened his heart a lot about his depression, and he’s given a lot to this community.
“I told him a year ago, ‘man, you need to come down to this competition that’s going to happen, it’s going to be awesome.’ He came down with his wife and his kids, and they’re loving it.
“He loves this place now, so hopefully he’ll come back every year.”
Brown is one of the best players not playing regular NRL football. After 11 eye-catching rookie-season appearances in 2014, he suffered a season-ending knee injury at the following year’s Auckland Nines.
But the Sharks’ stacked squad – and remarkably low attrition rate – restricted him to just four top-grade outings in 2016, instead plying his trade primarily as a key member of the highly successful Newtown Jets feeder team.
The 21-year-old nevertheless revelled in the Sharks’ watershed campaign.
“Being 18th man and all, being back-up in case an injury happened, it was a dream come true and a learning experience being with players like Michael Ennis and Paul Gallen,” he says.
“It was a whole squad effort, from one to the squad of 30, we all did it together.”
With regular No.6 James Maloney on Origin duty, Brown had a blinder in his first NRL game in 686 days – a 26-10 win over Penrith in Round 18, where he laid on a try for Barba – and he’s primed for a more prominent role in 2017, setting his sights on the vacant dummy-half role.
“I was pretty stoked, I never thought I’d get that chance this year with the quality of our team we had. It was pretty much like a dream team, and no one got injured.
“So I was quite lucky to get that chance, and when I did have the chance I tried to take it with both hands. Hopefully I did.
“Michael Ennis is retiring, but he’ll be around the club next year, so I’m just going to try and make sure I soak it all up and try and get that hooker role.
“I’ve been at Cronulla for five years now, and I feel like this year’s going to be my chance. All I want to do is get a good pre-season under my belt and see what happens from there.”
Despite Ennis hanging up the boots and fellow Canterbury native Matt McIlwrick moving to Wests Tigers, there’s still plenty of competition for the No.9 jumper. Brown is locked in a battle with Tigers recruit Manaia Cherrington, the 2016 NYC Player of the Year Jayden Brailey, and veteran utility Daniel Mortimer, who arrives from the Gold Coast.
But Brown is determined to lock down a place in the 17, and his experience in the halves and at lock holds him in good stead.
“We don’t have a stable (80-minute) hooker, so I want to be wherever I can help out the team, whether that’s hooker, lock, five-eighth if Jimmy goes back to Origin.
“I’m looking forward to the season. But I’ve been around the NRL squad for three years now and I just want to sustain my spot, just being a weekly first-grader instead of coming in and out of the team.”
Brown’s comeback from injury also included a Test debut for Samoa in May, kicking three goals in an 18-6 win over Tonga.
By a twist of fate, the Hornby junior could play in front of his hometown fans during next year’s World Cup. Christchurch has been awarded a quarter-final on November 18, and if Samoa finish second in their pool behind New Zealand, the island nation will be one of the teams playing in that match – probably against Fiji.
But if he has a big year for the defending premiers, the versatile tyro may force his way into the Kiwis squad and be required for the heavyweights’ clash with Scotland in Christchurch on November 4.
“I was obviously born in New Zealand, and I’d love to play for New Zealand. If the opportunity comes, I’ll take it, but for now I’ve just got to focus on club footy and that’s playing for Cronulla.
“If it happens, it’s one of those bucket list accomplishments. I’ve never played NRL in Christchurch, so hopefully I get that chance to play here, whether that’s for Samoa or the Kiwis,” he beams.
There may be uncertainty about what position he’ll play in 2017, who his Sharks teammates will be, and which country he’ll represent, but one certainty is that Nu Brown has paid his dues and is primed for a breakout year.