Veteran Sharks prop Andrew Fifita has quashed doubts about his playing future, saying he is fit, strong and determined to help lead Cronulla's young squad.
The 30-year-old, who is contracted until the end of 2022, has struggled with a chronic knee injury in recent seasons and underwent arthroscopic clean-out surgery last December.
In the wake of Sunday's loss to St George Illawarra, questions have arisen about whether Fifita's knee was hampering his performance and whether he should consider a medical retirement.
But the Tongan star claimed on Wednesday that his knee is the best it's been for some time.
Aside from a torn calf tendon that kept him out of rounds three and four, Fifita feels in top shape after adding five kilograms to get back to his ideal playing weight of 124kg.
"During the break [due to the COVID-19 pandemic] I really knuckled down and wanted to be the fittest that I could be," Fifita said ahead of his side's clash with Canterbury on Sunday.
"I installed a home gym and really took it upon myself.
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"My knee's actually really good at the moment. It's mostly the best I've ever been. I'm squatting 270, close to 300 kilos. It was just about getting that calf right."
Fifita said he took positives from the Dragons defeat after blowing the cobwebs out following a long layoff.
Explaining the decision to bulk up and add muscle to his legs, Fifita said he "felt way too light" at 119kg in the first two rounds.
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"I think what's best for our team and the limited minutes that I'm getting now, I can afford to put on those extra kilos," he said, having played 43 minutes on the weekend.
"If I was going out there and playing my usual 65 to 70 minutes, then I'd most probably drop a few kilos back."
Rather than his body's shortcomings, Fifita said his biggest challenge had been attempting to recapture the success of 2016's title win.
"I think the worst thing for me [in a way] was winning a comp," he said. "I've had the taste of glory and that's the thing I'm chasing for now, to be back there every year.
"You just expect it and think it's going to come easy, but that's probably one of the most difficult things to try and do, trying to back up year after year and year."
Meanwhile, Fifita and halfback Chad Townsend defended coach John Morris, whose job security has been called into question despite him making the finals last season in trying circumstances.
"The game plan's working, everything's working. We were doing shapes and pulling the Dragons apart but we just couldn't capitalise," Fifita said.
Townsend added: "I speak as a senior player here at the Sharks - we fully support Bomber [Morris] and what he's been doing and the changes he's been implementing.
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"He's not the one out there playing the games. He's giving us every chance to play well and [he's] preparing us really well."
Townsend also went into bat for halves partner Shaun Johnson, who has also copped criticism from the likes of former player Cooper Cronk - even though he leads the league for try assists with six.
"It thought it was unfair [to single Johnson out for criticism after the round-four win over the Cowboys]," Townsend said.
"I hope it fires him up, to be honest ... [But] we don't need any external motivation at the moment."
Townsend is excited to see ex-Raiders prop Royce Hunt make his Sharks debut off the bench against the Bulldogs at Bankwest Stadium on Sunday.
"Expect a real powerful kid, Royce Hunt. He's quite big in size, fast for a big man," Townsend said.
"He's got great leg-speed. Just watch his carries - look for him to bend the line backwards and generate some momentum in attack."