An emotional Andrew Fifita says he knows how easy it is to let a Kangaroos jersey slip from your grasp – and has no intentions of doing so a second time.
The 27-year-old Sharks prop played all six Tests for Australia in their dominant 2013 World Cup campaign but, due in part to a range of off-field issues, those were his first and last Tests until last Friday's 30-12 Anzac Test win in Canberra.
Off-field issues derailed his Four Nations hopes late last year and it took injuries to first-string props Aaron Woods and Shannon Boyd – combined with his own strong form for Cronulla – to get him back in green and gold for his first Test under new coach Mal Meninga.
"It was awesome to be back… I'm kind of just letting my footy do the talking now," Fifita said after a strong stint that netted him 107 metres and 37 tackles against the Kiwis.
There was no hiding his desperation to earn a spot in Meninga's squad for the Rugby League World Cup title defence on home soil at the end of the year.
"I made it a goal before and I've seen how easy it is to slip away from this jersey," he said.
"I hope I'm a part of that squad. The main goal for the rest of the year is to be professional and stay injury free and hopefully get into that World Cup squad.
"I've celebrated that World Cup before and to play at Manchester United's home ground at Old Trafford [in the 2013 World Cup Final] was one of the best games and feelings. It's just like winning the comp. To be world champs, it would be awesome to go back-to-back."
While there were suggestions Meninga's policy of picking on character as well as form may make it tough for Fifita to re-enter the Kangaroos frame, this past week was the first time the two have even formally met – and now Fifita hopes he's made a good enough impression to win over the Australia coach, who was full of praise for his big bopper after the game.
"To be honest it's the first time I met Mal, this week," Fifita said.
"I see why all the boys have so much respect for Mal and the culture that he's brought here and I think that's the main thing about buying into it. I understand why everyone looks up to him. He's a legend of the game and it's an honour to be part of his team."
Meninga praised Fifita's leadership throughout the week.
"Andrew was fantastic through the week. I thought he showed some really good leadership, showed us he wanted to be part of this footy team and I think one of his goals was to play well for his teammates and for them to look up to him and respect him for the job he did," Meninga said.
"Through the week he's been extraordinarily good, he's bought into everything we want to achieve as people, that's the most important thing. And then obviously as a player that puts the green and gold jersey on and his performance showed that."
Pressed on his leadership credentials, Fifita said the environment Meninga and the rest of the squad created made him comfortable in speaking up when he had something to say.
"[Leadership] comes with age," he said.
"There were times to speak up… if I can contribute something in the convo or I know a bit more than other players, I felt free to speak up and everyone listened to me.
"Just to be a part of this team, and if I can bring my leadership skills to it, I think we're going places and hopefully my footy can keep doing the talking and I get an opportunity to go back-to-back [in the World Cup]."
Fifita said a conversation with Meninga early in the week where the coach stressed the moral values that came along with the Kangaroos jersey set the tone for the week.
"Mal sat me down when I first came in and he showed me the morals and what the players are buying into. He showed me the whole 'RISE' campaign and I was ready to buy into it," he said.
Having known what it's like to lose a Kangaroos jersey and spend four years out of the Test arena, Fifita said he is now ready to try and cement his place.
"You're at the top of the game and I don't want to go back down," he said.
"I had a few hiccups along the way but I'm here now and I don't want to let go of it."
This article first appeared on NRL.com