Penrith Panthers star Viliame Kikau has credited Johnathan Thurston for saving his career and making him pursue his NRL dream.
The man mountain almost abandoned his pursuit of a professional contract in rugby league, just weeks after he was signed by the North Queensland Cowboys in 2013 as a shy 18-year-old.
“After two weeks up in North Queensland I was planning to pack my bags and go home,” Kikau told 7 News.
“I was just lonely.”
Kikau grew up in Fiji and was recruited by the Cowboys five years ago, joining Thurston, Matt Scott, James Tamou and a host of other stars in Townsville.
But given his difficulty transitioning to life in Australia, he was almost set to return to Fiji – until Thurston intervened.
Thurston sat Kikau down and the pair delved into a heart-to-heart conversation that eventually twisted his arm, and he hasn’t looked back.
The now 23-year-old has since thrived in the NRL, recently signing a monster contract with the Penrith Panthers earlier in the year.
The big prop is now gearing up for the NRL semi-final clash with the Cronulla Sharks, in a massive do-or-die match.
“I’m really happy that I made the decision to stay,” Kikau said.
Current teammate James Tamou was also at the Cowboys when Kikau first joined, and acknowledged his talent that might have been wasted had he opted to quit.
“He’s just raw power, he’s exciting to watch,” Tamou said.
Panthers coach Cameron Ciraldo also chimed in on Kikau’s rise to fame, noting his strength and ability is to be feared by rival clubs.
“I’m sure the other teams are dong a lot of homework on him,” he said.
“They’ll be doing their best to nullify his impact.”
Penrith ready for battle with Cronulla
Penrith are ready to put into practice their lessons from the past two years and clear the NRL semi-finals hurdle once and for all against Cronulla on Friday night.
Knocked out by Canberra and Brisbane at this point in 2016 and 2017, the Panthers endured a dramatic end to this year’s regular season but still find themselves in the same position as the past.
But this time under new coach Cameron Ciraldo they insist they are ready to stake their claim in September, no longer content with just playing finals football
“Hopefully we’ve learned from the past two years and take that into tomorrow and not make the same mistakes,” Ciraldo said.
“It’s a pretty similar position, it’s obviously the same week we’ve been in for the past few years.”
There are stark differences though to both 2016 and 2017.
Nathan Cleary is now a State of Origin winning halfback, while Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tyrone Peachey also both made their NSW debuts alongside him this year.
And the big addition is James Maloney, who is now in his eighth finals series with a fourth club with two premierships already to his name and ready to take on his old side.
Maloney is well aware this is the stage of the year he was brought to the club for, and his experience was crucial in turning the tide against the Warriors last week with a 40-20 victory when the Panthers were down 12-2 early.
“Obviously a bit of leadership at this time of year, that becomes very important,” he said.
“I have to make sure I do my job and do it really well on the weekend.
“With younger guys you just find they do look up to you and look for advice in certain situations. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed this year.”
The other advantage at Penrith’s disposal this season is the quickly clicking spine Maloney has around him and Cleary.
While Dylan Edwards and Peter Wallace’s injuries decimated their fullback and hooker positions early, the halves pairing have won five of seven matches when joined by Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Sione Katoa in the other key positions.
“I felt like they clicked two weeks ago against Melbourne (in the last round),” Ciraldo said.
“They were really good there and have been building towards that.
“Our last two performances have been our best two. We’ve got to make sure we keep building on that the way they’re going.”