Revealed: Betrayal that turned Fifita off the Broncos
It was one of the greatest recruitment bids in NRL history and now it can be exclusively revealed how David Fifita ended up at the Titans, from the moment he lost faith in the Broncos, to Wayne Bennett's audacious bid to bring him to Sydney. Read part one of The Fifita Heist here.
Gold Coast Titans-bound star David Fifita quit the Broncos after losing trust in the Brisbane system that had delivered Queensland's glamour club six premierships.
In the lead-up to Saturday's Titans-Broncos derby at Cbus Super Stadium, News Corp can reveal the intricate machinations behind one of the biggest recruitment heists in NRL history.
Fifita not only lost faith in the coaching of Anthony Seibold and Brisbane's slide but also became disillusioned with the Broncos following explosive leaks about his delicate contract talks.
A series of secret meetings and conversations, betrayals of trust, backflips and a record offer ultimately led to Fifita's $3.5 million defection.
The move was a year in the making, with the Titans earmarking Fifita as their No.1 recruitment target shortly after ex-coach Garth Brennan was sacked in July last year.
"We were talking about him last year," said Titans performance and culture chief Mal Meninga.
"When we were going through our review and where we wanted to go as a club we looked at our roster and where we needed to fill some holes.
"We had a shortage in edge-backrowers and if we were going to recruit we had to go after the best there is.
"I see David as a marquee player - his talent is untapped. He has already played for his state and Australia (Nines, Junior Kangaroos). We see a future in him.
"Being out of the Keebra Park system on the Gold Coast suited our philosophy of where we want our kids to come from. We had our sights on him for a while."
When Justin Holbrook arrived on the Gold Coast late last year to replace Brennan and supported the Titans' vision to sign Fifita, the pursuit officially kicked off.
But the Titans would have to overcome a mountain of obstacles to land their man - few bigger than Wayne Bennett and the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
BENNETT'S $1.2 MILLION BID
BENNETT handed Fifita his NRL debut at the Broncos in 2018, when at 18 he became the first player born this millennium to feature in the NRL.
Desperate to land a killer blow on the Broncos club that unceremoniously sacked him, Bennett rolled out the big guns - flying Rabbitohs legend Sam Burgess to Brisbane to sell the South Sydney vision.
Burgess and Fifita lunched at a Brisbane CBD restaurant in early January this year and the Rabbitohs backed up their play with a monstrous $1.2 million-a-season offer.
"Souths offered him so much money," said Fifita's mother Gwen.
"I didn't know Sam and hadn't met him in my life. He came to Brisbane and he met up with David - that mission was to specifically meet up with Dave to sign him
"Wayne teed it all up and they caught up in the city."
Despite Burgess' pitch and the eye watering offer - Fifita rejected the Rabbitohs.
"I thought we were a chance of getting him, but it's hard to get some kids out of Brisbane," Bennett said.
"Dave had never lived in Sydney and I understood that. That was a killer part for us, Dave having to move down to Sydney.
"It was a great offer and he knows that, he knows what I could have done for him, but it was too big of an ask.
"We worked pretty hard on him. Sam had a chat to him, but the Sydney thing was too big a hurdle.
"Sydney is no big deal for me now, but it is a city you need to get used to. If I was 19, I wouldn't want to come to Sydney either."
The Broncos and Titans had dodged Bennett's bullet but the war was just beginning.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE
FOR months, the Broncos had remained bullish, bordering arrogant, about their prospects of re-signing Fifita, particularly after Bennett's failed bid.
"We don't lose players like David," was a popular line from those in power at Red Hill.
The club moved mountains to secure Fifita's release from a Bali jail in November, sending welfare officer Adam Walsh to the Indonesian island to broker a $30,000 "peace agreement" following the alleged assault of a nightclub bouncer.
Broncos CEO Paul White hosted Fifita and Gwen at his house for dinner in December to further outline the club's vision and was confident a deal would be done.
But Fifita, at only 19 years of age, held firm and waited as he weighed up his options, with the Titans seriously entering the frame.
In the lead-up to this year's All Stars game, Fifita made a public declaration that he was open to shifting clubs.
On February 21, in his only interview in what has now been close to a year, Fifita bucked the Red Hill rhetoric and told News Corp he was no certainty to remain at the Broncos.
"I'm not too sure what I'm going to do to be honest," Fifita said.
"I've been (with the Broncos) ever since I was young, coming through the juniors. They have been really good for me since I was young until now. I'm happy at the Broncos. I'm happy in general.
"We'll see what happens. It's a business at the end of the day, you know how it works."
Despite the Broncos' belief Fifita would commit to the club after their Bali rescue mission, he held a different view.
"They had to do what they've got to do - that's their job, to look after their players," Fifita said.
"They have been supportive because I'm with the Broncos and that's their job - to be supportive of a player of theirs. I feel that support.
"I've got to play good footy. That's how I can repay them."
For the first time, the Broncos started to doubt their stranglehold on Fifita.
FROM RICHES TO A RABBLE
IT WAS March 13, 2020. After sending shockwaves around the world, the coronavirus pandemic struck Australia and the blockbuster Round 1 NRL clash between the North Queensland Cowboys and Brisbane Broncos at Townsville's new $250 million Queensland Country Bank Stadium was in danger of being cancelled hours before kick-off.
Former NRL chief Todd Greenberg managed to convince government officials to allow it to proceed, saving the game from a multimillion-dollar blackout.
It also provided Fifita, now 20, with an opportunity to show why he deserved to become the NRL's next $1 million-a-season player.
In the 58th minute, with the Broncos heading for a boil over victory, Fifita produced a miraculous 70m solo try which convinced Holbrook he was the player to lead a Titanic resurrection.
"He is the best young forward in our game," Holbrook said.
"With the bigger dollars you want them to be game changers, not necessarily what position they play.
"Dave is one of those players. Go back to round one where he made that break against the Cowboys and runs around the fullback."
The Broncos and Fifita were flying high that night, but what wasn't known was he had sustained a knee injury during the game.
A hesitant Fifita backed up and played the following weekend in Brisbane's win against South Sydney at an empty Suncorp Stadium.
It would be the last game he played for nearly five months as COVID-19 forced the suspension of the NRL and Fifita underwent surgery to repair his knee.
In the time Fifita was sidelined, the Broncos remarkably descended from one of the NRL's form teams to a rabble in contention for the wooden spoon.
Coach Seibold was fighting for his future and trying to convince Fifita to stay as the Broncos plummeted down the ladder.
"When a team isn't winning and they are struggling, it takes the fun out of it," admitted Broncos board member Darren Lockyer, a member of the club's recruitment and retention committee.
"He had this massive offer from the Titans and he felt he wasn't having fun at the Broncos.
"When you aren't winning games, it's human nature to look for excuses about why you are losing and it can create a negative environment.
"There's no doubt not winning played a role in Dave's decision."
RAISING THE TITANIC
WHILE the Broncos slipped further and further, the Titans were slowly on the rise.
Last year's wooden spooners were responding to Holbrook's coaching methods and the Titans had already secured the signature of Melbourne Storm giant Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, a teammate of Fifita's from Queensland junior teams.
"We started playing together from the under-13s, we made all the rep teams year after year and our bond just got stronger the more we played," Fa'asuamaleaui said.
"I was calling him a few times telling him about the Titans and how good it would be to play together there and make the club a force."
Fifita had also been in contact with Titans utility Tanah Boyd, a former Broncos teammate, who had spruiked the positives of the Gold Coast.
Like Fifita, Boyd is a product of Keebra Park along with rising Titans stars Moeaki Fotuaika and AJ Brimson.
The Titans' pitch was becoming louder and Holbrook became involved - but this wasn't like any normal recruitment bid.
The NRL's biosecurity protocols had limited the movements of players and officials so Holbrook held three phone calls with Fifita and was surprised by what transpired.
"What I was impressed with was Dave's contribution, how well he understands the game and how good he wants to be," Holbrook said.
"He did a lot of homework himself. When I talked to Dave it wasn't me trying to sell the club to him like it can be when you're trying to recruit a high-end player.
"He already had an understanding of what we were doing at the club, that's what I loved.
"When I spoke to him I thought 'geez, this is the guy we want to get'. I was really impressed with Dave's contribution to the process.
"He said 'I've spoken to a few people about you as a coach'. Instead of me telling him I want him at the club and this is why, it was more about him having an understanding. He'd spoken to a few people, guys at the club and others from outside that he respects in the game.
"For a 20-year-old to go to those lengths, I was amazed and really impressed. We all know his on-field ability and you can get caught up with that, but the fact he had done the homework on our club and myself … I was really impressed."
THE GLOVES ARE OFF
BY July the battle was well and truly on.
The Titans were willing to offer Fifita about $1 million-a-season and discussed a potential lifetime term.
Restricted by salary cap constraints and hesitant to splash that sort of cash on a back-rower, the Broncos maxed out at $800,000-a-season after holding more than 20 meetings with him.
Fifita was torn and sought the advice of Broncos teammates.
With Brisbane on a downward spiral and Seibold losing support, at least one Broncos player urged Fifita to make the move to the Titans because he would receive better coaching from Holbrook.
It was a damning assessment of Seibold and a once proud club and gave Fifita serious food for thought, but he was still unsure and turned to a familiar voice - Bennett.
Fifita phoned Bennett numerous times seeking guidance about his future.
On the night of July 7, Fifita called Seibold and Lockyer to advise them he was quitting the Broncos to join the Titans.
After a restless night Fifita made two phone calls the following morning - again to Seibold and Lockyer.
This time it was to inform them he had changed his mind and was leaning towards remaining in Brisbane.
"I was never nervous but I was never sure either and I was okay with that," Holbrook said of the ever-changing situation.
"For a young guy to make a huge decision on his future and have people in his ear from every angle made it difficult for him.
"It wasn't a rushed decision and I was happy with his honesty through it all.
"In the few conversations I had with him, he kept saying 'it's a really big decision for me' and I respected that. I was OK with it. I didn't want to put any pressure on him."
Within hours of the backflip it became public that Fifita had quit the Broncos before changing his mind in the space of 12 hours.
"He told us he was going to go and then the next day he changed his mind and told us he was staying," Lockyer said.
"There were a few times where he was staying and then thinking about going to the Titans.
"It was a rollercoaster ride and a factor was him being injured on the sideline and there was frustration building up with his leg, there were so many decisions to be made."
THE HAIL MARY
The Titans knew they were close to securing their man and bumped up their offer and on July 9 a furious Fifita fronted Broncos football chief Peter Nolan, demanding answers about his leaked negotiations.
The Broncos insisted they had kept Fifita's backflip in-house but over a frantic 48 hours the seed had been planted - Fifita had lost trust in his club.
With Fifita stalling, the Titans made one final play - a "Hail Mary" bid.
A revised three-year offer worth $3.5 million included a mouth-watering $1.25 million package for the 2021 season.
On July 23, with the Titans exhausting their monetary offer, Gold Coast powerbrokers produced their trump card - former Broncos captain Gorden Tallis.
An ambassador for the Titans, Tallis spoke to Fifita about his wellbeing and the prospects of joining the Gold Coast.
Fifita asked Tallis about his involvement at the club and whether he could act as a mentor for the rising Queensland Origin forward, which Tallis agreed to in an informal capacity.
"I only spoke to him once," Tallis said.
"I called him to see how he was going with it all. It was a 10-minute phone call.
"He had spoken to Justin about the style of footy, he had done his due diligence on the club and who was coming.
"It was a tough decision because he is a bloody loyal kid with a lot of mates."
THE Broncos fell 46-8 to Melbourne at Suncorp Stadium on July 24, the club's eighth loss from its past nine games as Fifita edged closer to returning from knee surgery.
In his post-match media conference, Seibold responded angrily when asked about the Titans' monster three-year offer to Fifita.
"I'm not here to talk about that tonight, I want to talk about the game," he barked.
Seibold knew Fifita was gone and his frustration at losing one of the game's brightest talents was palpable.
The following morning, Fifita broke the news to his Broncos teammates that he was joining the Titans.
This time it was official. There would be no backflips. The most seismic shift in the Broncos-Titans rivalry had occurred.
The Titans quietly celebrated as a weight was lifted off Fifita's hulking shoulders.
"The way he's handled this situation and his decision was very professional and sensitive," Meninga said.
"He made sure he was in control of the process. He had conversations before anyone knew he had signed with us.
"The process was handled really well in an appropriate way and Dave was instrumental in that."
TOMORROW: PART 2 - THE BRONCOS' PLAN TO HIT BACK AND THE GOLD COAST'S MISSION TO BECOME AN NRL POWERHOUSE
Originally published as Revealed: Betrayal of trust that turned Fifita off the Broncos