The former Warrior was forced to step down from the current season Match Fit due to health concerns. He gives Sela Jane Hopgood the inside story on his surprise comeback in tonight’s episode.
The classic saying of “I’ll start on Monday” when wanting to lose weight or get fitter is one that Henry Fa’afili knows all too well. The former Warriors player retired from professional rugby league in 2016 in Ireland, returned to Aotearoa with his wife Amy and spent a year in Wellington before relocating to Tauranga, where they’ve been raising their family for the past four years.
Over that period of life after footy, becoming a father to two sons, adapting to a new city having lived in Tāmaki Makaurau for most of his life and becoming head coach and mentor at Tauranga Boxing Academy, Fa’afili found it difficult to schedule in time to work on his own fitness and health.
“Every day after work and tending to the kids, come 9pm and I’m exhausted. I thought I had a fast metabolism,” he laughs. “But suddenly I’m getting bigger, so I would try to do a bit of exercise, but not enough to burn off the bad habits I was doing.”
Late last month I drove from Tāmaki Makaurau to Tauranga to chat to Fa’afili at his boxing academy. He was warm and welcoming, looked brighter and his hard work eating clean and exercising regularly was obvious.
Last year Fa’afili was approached by TV personality and another former Warrior Wairangi Koopu to join the cast for Match Fit’s first league season. Match Fit is a show that invites a team of rugby league legends to get back in shape for a final match against the Australian Kangaroos. Fa’afili was appropriately nervous, knowing that he hadn’t been for a run in five years, had both hips replaced in the past three years and was certainly not at the weight he was when wearing the Kiwis jersey.
In Fa’afili’s playing days, where he was known for his coconut-opening try celebration and hair braids, he weighed around 105kg. On the first episode of Match Fit, the 42-year-old weighed in at 127.2kg with a metabolic age of 57. A person’s metabolic age is measured by how many calories their body burns at rest compared to the average metabolic rate for people of that age group in the general population.
The group of former league players started their Match Fit journey with the bronco test – an aerobic fitness test where one runs to-and-from a start line to the 20, 40 and 60 metre marks, five times without a break.
The latest Match Fit season was filmed in April 2022 and Fa’afili remembers the bronco test like it was yesterday. “Coach Ruben Wiki got us all to partner up and because of my relatively new hips, I got to buddy up with coach Tawera Nikau and I thought, surely I can keep up with a one-legged guy,” he jokes.
The first lap Fa’afili managed to complete with ease, encouraging Nikau to keep up. “I was up to my third lap, jogging towards the 60 metre mark and I started to slow down, as I turned to head back to the starting line, I looked up and it was a mirage.” Suddenly the tables turned – Nikau was pacing next to Fa’afili, pushing Fa’afili to keep going. “Oh no he didn’t just run past me,” Fa’afili remembers thinking. Fa’afili completed the bronco test in 14 minutes and six seconds – Sione Faumuina was the first to finish his test at six minutes and six seconds.
“Those last few laps, my breathing became heavier and even though I was walking some of it, that alone was hard,” Fa’afili shares. “It became a mental battle for me because I started doubting myself that I couldn’t finish it.”
When he finally completed his test, Fa’afili collapsed, trying to catch his breath. He soon became pale, prompting the ambulance crew on site to assess him. “That was definitely the hardest fitness test I’ve ever done in my life.”
The day after the test, as Fa’afili continued to recover, he wondered if he had Covid and if that was why he struggled throughout the test. He also had suspicions about his heart and eventually booked in to see a specialist at Tauranga Hospital. There, he got an unwelcome answer.
“I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation,” he says. ”Normally the heart beats in a coordinated way from our own natural pacemaker, but in my case it’s like my heart is running a marathon every day even if I’m just sitting down, so the movement has become uncoordinated meaning my heart isn’t able to perform at its full capacity,” he explains. The strain this puts on Fa’afili’s heart could potentially lead to heart failure. “The news was a hard pill to swallow.”
While filming episode two of Match Fit, Fa’afili broke the news of his diagnosis to the group of men and relayed that he had been advised to take it easy when exercising. As a result, the producers asked Fa’afili to step down from the show for his safety. He did, albeit reluctantly. “I was gutted that I had to do my own journey,” he remembers. “I ended up in a dark space for the first couple of weeks to the point that I went to see a psychologist.” Fa’afili didn’t appear on Match Fit for episode three and four.
Fa’afili’s wife Amy consistently motivated Fa’afili to make a change and began working out with him to keep him accountable. “She was my lifesaver,” he says. He began eating more vegetables and greens and exercising more regularly. The Match Fit cast including the coaches and trainer created a group chat, which Fa’afili was a part of. He completed the workouts that either Wiki, Match Fit trainer Alex Flint or Paul Rauhiri would set in their group chat with the rest of the men. “As each day went by, my reason for living a healthier lifestyle became clearer, being around longer for my wife and sons as well as walking the talk as a trainer and mentor for the youth at my workplace.”
Off-screen, Fa’afili became fitter and was losing weight. “I went down to 124kg in two weeks, and I told the CEO of Pango Productions Bailey Mackey that I wanted to come back and do the bronco test at the end of the season,” he says. Mackey was hesitant, and that alone was enough to motivate Fa’afili to prove he was capable. “I thought how cool it would be if I returned back to the show through hard work and dedication, showing everyone that it’s possible?”
At New Years, Fa’afili’s workplace had signed up to participate at the Tauranga marathon, which included a 5k and 10k fun run. Fa’afili scoffed at the idea of himself partaking in a run and so he volunteered to do the barbecue, until a young boy who was new to the academy approached him. “He told me he wanted to do the run, but he was scared people would laugh at him, and immediately he reminded me of my first bronco test, so I told the kid, ‘I’ll run with you’,” he says.
“The kid was an angel sent from above because he made me complete my first [5k], something I never would have done since moving to Tauranga. His face when we made the finish line was priceless.”
The next day, Fa’afili walked up Mount Maunganui for the first time and again surprised himself with how far he had come physically since April. “I documented my journey and have been sharing it with the boys throughout the year. Then one day I got a call from the TV series producer saying they’re looking to have me back for the last game of Match Fit, maybe running the water for the boys,” Fa’afili says.
He asked whether he could participate in the bronco test too, but was told he needed the green light from his doctor. “I got in touch with my cardiologist, and I had to explain what the bronco test was before she instructed me to go at my own pace.”
The day before the final bronco test for the league legends season, Fa’afili did a practice run of the test. “I did pretty good,” he proudly admits.
In the penultimate episode this week, Fa’afili made a surprising return to Match Fit and completed his bronco test in seven minutes and 25 seconds.”
Since the first episode right up until this week, Fa’afili has been getting an overwhelming response from the public. “I’ve been getting a lot of messages from people saying how I’ve motivated them to go get their heart checked or that they’ve started on their health journey because of me and it’s beautiful to see.
“I’ve started up a closed Facebook group called Life Fit for people to inspire each other on their fitness journey because I found the group chat with the Match Fit boys motivating and it kept me accountable, so I wanted to replicate that on the Facebook group.”
“Match Fit was a blessing in disguise for me.”
Match Fit: League Legends screens Wednesday nights on Three and is available to stream on ThreeNow.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.